Funding cuts for US science look less and less like temporary hardship and more and more like prolonged drought. This is in spite of the administration's commitment to a strong research and development (R&D) effort and in spite of a largely sympathetic Congress.
It presents the US scientific and technical community with an unprecedented challenge to keep the country scientifically strong with fewer and fewer resources.
Willis H. Shapley, a veteran budget analyst, has laid out the problem clearly. He explains: ''Even under optimistic economic conditions, total funding available for nondefense R&D faces a reduction in constant dollars of as much as 30 percent over the five-year period FY 1983 to FY 1987, unless continued high deficits, substantial increases in taxes, a major cutback in defense, or some combination of these becomes acceptable economically and politically.''
He adds, ''The establishment of plans and priorities for federal support of R&D within a total level of resources that is declining in real terms is the single greatest challenge facing the scientific and technical leadership in the government and the scientific and technical community as a whole.''
A former federal budget official, now retired, Mr. Shapley is a consultant to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His view, first presented at an AAAS symposium in late June and repeated more recently in the journal Science, has emerged from a thorough study of the 1983 federal R&D budget in which he participated.
His point is that America's R&D plight results from, and is part of, the country's general economic problems. It is not due to any ''antiscience'' bias within the administration or the Congress.
The report of the AAAS budget analysis puts it this way: ''The economic outlook is grim: . . . In a crisis of such proportions, research and development budgets cannot expect to be at the center of political attention. . . . Even R&D's legitimate claim for preferred treatment as a long-term investment can be asserted as well by advocates for federal support of education, urban renewal, and other programs.''
That's unusual language for the scientific community, which has tended to take its preferred status for granted and has considered ''science for science' sake'' sufficient justification. It marks a watershed in the management of the US research enterprise, as Shapley notes.
There is no point in planetary scientists bemoaning lost dreams. There is little justice in condemning budget officials for ''lacking the vision'' to maintain maximum funding for hydrogen-fusion power development. The problem runs deeper than the prejudices of the present administration.
Shapley is right. Scientists must sharpen their own perceptions, set priorities in research, and learn to live leanly for many years to come. A well-balanced research effort can still be maintained. It may mean substituting less-costly planetary probes for the major missions of the past. It may involve concentrating high-energy physics research at fewer national facilities.
Such belt tightening will hurt a bit. But if done carefully, US scientific enterprise should remain strong.