A fatter purse for scientific research

Lasers, superstrong plastics, and high-yielding strains of corn will probably be treated well by President Reagan's 1984 budget. Over the last two years, basic scientific research has been an oasis of increased funds in the otherwise austere environment of federal spending. Government support for such research increased about 15 percent between 1981 and 1983.

Indications are the 1984 budget will contain similar hikes for pure science, though government research in some specific areas - notably renewable energy and environmental protection - is slated to be cut severely.

''We have looked on [research] as getting the second largest budget increases , after defense,'' says an administration science policy official. ''That trend is likely to be continued.''

In fiscal 1983, Uncle Sam will spend $5.8 billion on pure science. The money, funneled through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and various agencies, such as the Department of Defense, pays for a rich variety of programs. US funds help support the observatory, in Chile, where a University of Michigan astronomer recently discovered the first black hole outside our galaxy (see story Page 4). A robotics institute at a large technical university is being started with NSF seed money.

Washington pays for research into potato genetics, fiber-reinforced plastics, and the Earth's crustal motions. Three major high-energy physics labs, where scientists track quarks, leptons, and other elemental forces of nature, are funded by the Department of Energy. Despite sometimes spotty government support, US physicists have won four Nobel prizes over the last six years.

Such sciences have been spared the budget-cutting shears, administration officials say, because they're crucial in determining our long-term economic competitiveness.

''With rare exceptions, commercial payoffs from this kind of research are uncertain and delayed. Yet that accumulating body of ideas eventually underlies new civilian and military technology,'' Dr. George Keyworth, science adviser to the President, said in a speech last fall.

Although the President's advisers are talking about $30 billion in nondefense spending cuts for 1984, it appears basic research will continue to receive favorable treatment. NSF officials, for instance, confirm the President will propose boosting their agency's budget 18 percent in '84, to $1.3 billion.

''I believe the increase will go heavily to engineering programs,'' an NSF official says.

But over the last two years, the rising tide of basic research spending has not lifted all research evenly. Though health programs still account for the largest share of the basic research budget, the defense-research sector has increased the fastest since 1981.

''The proportion of basic research that is funded by the military is higher than it was last year,'' says the top scientist on a congressional committee.

Much defense research is applicable to more than weapons, this scientist says. The Department of Defense's high-speed integrated-circuit program is developing the next generation of computer chips, for instance.

Research in some specific areas of science has been cut. Support for natural resources and environmental research has declined since 1981, reflecting decreases in the Environmental Protection Agency's budget. These areas face more cuts in 1984, according to Office of Management and Budget documents.

Money for studying and developing energy sources other than nuclear power, though not part of the basic research budget figures, has been drastically reduced. Photovoltaics research money has declined 24 percent since 1982. And the 1984 budget is likely to propose cutting the remaining photovoltaics funds in half, according to OMB work papers.

Some proposed reductions in the research budget have been rebuffed by Congress: In 1982, the administration was thwarted in attempts to cut out social science research funds. NSF science education programs, slated for elimination by the White House, have been restored by Capitol Hill.

Presidential science adviser Keyworth has complained that the scientific community has been unnecessarily suspicious of the Reagan administration's intentions. Scientists and congressional staffers agree it's taken some time for the science community to recognize the good fortune of rising research budgets in an environment of overall fiscal constraint.

''There's inevitably a certain tension'' between scientists and politicians, says Albert Teich, policy studies chief at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, ''but on the whole responsible scientists'' say they believe the administration is treating research ''reasonably well.''

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