Concern for US technology lag may spur R&D renaissance

At a time when many American scientists decry cuts in federal funding, Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, says the country seems ripe for a scientific and technological renaissance.

He already sees this under way in industry, where research and development (R&D) support is expected to grow by 17 percent this year after a 16 percent gain in 1981.

Furthermore, he says that rapidly growing national concern over the technological lag and the decay of science and mathematics education in the United States could have the effect of a second Sputnik. As with the alarm aroused by that Soviet satellite 25 years ago, he explains, the present concern may well rekindle broad public support for a strong national program in scientific research and education.

With this in mind, Dr. Press is mounting a campaign to build assured long-term support for basic science into the federal budget. This would amount to an entitlement program for the sciences - something that has never been granted before. However, Press explained during a conversation in his academy office, this would be no welfare program for academics.

''A good fraction of the US gross national product is due to new knowledge,'' he noted. ''So,'' he added, ''it is not science for its own sake. There are very important national security matters involved,'' since that security depends partly on economic strength.

Press is recommending a five-point program including:

* A guaranteed minimum of stable funding through a basic research budget that would increase enough each year to cover inflation plus 2 percent real growth.

* Special additional support for certain projects that meet specific national needs or offer especially good payoffs. New research facilities would also be funded this way.

* Cooperation between scientists and government to raise research productivity by transferring funds from less productive institutions to more fruitful activity centers.

* A commitment from industry to an annual increase of 1 percent above inflation in its support of university R&D - an annual raise of about $50 million.

* A partnership between government, industry, and universities to develop a program of adequate support for graduate education in science and engineering.

Press, science adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, admits that he is asking for the moon. But he notes that this is no longer a metaphor for attempting the impossible.

He says he recognizes that a guaranteed annual budget for the sciences is unprecedented. He also notes that identifying less productive research might tempt Congress or the Office of Management and Budget simply to cut funding rather than to transfer funds to other research. But he says he believes the problems his proposal raises are more organizational and bureaucratic than they are financial.

''Science,'' he explained, '' becomes more expensive with time because, as science progresses, the problems it addresses become more complicated. This is a built-in inflation factor. But huge sums of money are not involved. Federal funding for basic science now runs to about $5 billion. If you talk about, say, a 10 percent growth rate, . . . that is only about $500 million.

''In a $40 billion federal research-and-development expenditure, there are lots of questions to be raised. One to two percent of the development budget (including defense projects) could increase the basic research budget by 10 percent. We have to look at the R&D budget as a whole, not piecemeal. This has never been done before. We have only done it in basic research. I did do this for President Carter.''

Press has no illusions that his ideas will find quick acceptance. ''What I propose will take a couple of years of education to put across,'' he says. But he says the Reagan administration seems willing to try to reorganize R&D funding for productivity and long-term growth ''and may bring it off.''

He notes that although some fields such as planetary science have suffered cuts, basic science has done fairly well under this administration. There has been what he calls ''real growth in many areas.''

In developing his proposals, Press is cooperating with his successor, George Keyworth, President Reagan's science adviser. Press notes that Dr. Keyworth also said there may be better ways to spend some of the $40 billion R&D budget; more might be shifted to basic research.

Press is also getting what he calls ''a lot of response'' from congressmen and governors to an academy symposium report on science education. This is the report which warned that a ''20-year erosion'' of science and mathematics education has brought the US to the point where ''we are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically and technologically illiterate.'' It is this kind of response that Press says encourages him to think a national consensus for a strong US science effort can again be built.

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