In some areas, the United States has taken some licks from foreign competitors lately. But in scientific research, the foundation for technological progress, the US is still second to none.
''There's no question that American science is vastly superior to that of any other nation,'' says George A. Keyworth, science adviser to President Reagan.
* In 1985, NASA will launch a telescope into outer space, allowing astronomers a look at the universe unobscured by the haze of Earth's atmosphere. ''We'll see galaxies and planets we've never seen before,'' one scientist says.
* The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California is building a center for materials research, where scientists will study such things as inexpensive carbon composites for use in gas turbines, and new types of super-alloys that use little or no scarce strategic minerals.
* The most recent discovery in high-energy physics came from Europe. But at America's imperial palace of high-tech, Fermilab near Chicago, workmen are installing a ring of supercooled magnets that will make the facility the most powerful particle accelerator in the world.
* More mundane products emanating recently from US labs include the Lemhi Russet potato, a modernized spud capable of outyielding the Russet Burbank by 30 percent; a stoplight synchronizer that might save 2.5 milil9l,0,16l,6plion gallons of gas a day by smoothing traffic flow; and a method of producing paper from short-fiber trees, saving long-fiber pine for housing and other purposes.
The US spent about $77 billion on research and development (R&D) in 1982, according to National Science Foundation estimates - twice as much as all other industrial democracies combined.
Much of that money comes from the federal government. Uncle Sam pays for almost half of US R&D, and funds more than 70 percent of the smaller basic research budget. Science funding is thus quite dependent on White House attitudes.
The Reagan administration is treating science well, if overall budget figures are used as a yardstick. The President's proposed '84 budget would increase federal R&D spending 17 percent, to $47 billion, with the hike primarily going to weapons development and basic research.
''Basic research is a federal trust'' that will be a crucial factor in determining future US economic competitiveness, Dr. Keyworth, Reagan's chief scientist, said in an interview.
While basic research in America has been forging ahead, says Keyworth, labs have become more and more isolated from the needs of American industry.
''Almost a chauvinistic attitude has developed, where the perception is that good, creative science is inconsistent with the profit motive,'' he says.
This ''chasm,'' says Keyworth, makes it difficult for the country to address the most serious security threats facing the country today: ''economic threats from competitors who have become more challenging and the fact that the technological gap between the US and the Soviet Union has been very much reduced.''
Changing the way US science is organized may help close this chasm, Keyworth says. The US government runs more than 700 research labs, from one-man agricultural stations to the soaring concrete-and-glass tower of Fermilab. The labs are often ''out of date in terms of their missions,'' he says. ''They have enormous expertise, talent, superb facilities, but their missions are generally neither defense nor improving our industrial competitiveness - therefore in general they are addressing less-than-top-priority needs of the nation.''
Keyworth says he wants to see more interaction among federal labs, industry, and academia. For instance, the National Synchrotron Light Source, a sort of atomic flashlight capable of illuminating the structure of matter, was built at Brookhaven lab with federal money. But 27 universities and 12 corporations are paying for their instruments to hang on the basic light source so they can conduct their own experiments. IBM is studying ways of etching microchips; New York State University is building a new X-ray microscope.
A nuclear physicist by trade, Keyworth was plucked by President Reagan from the relative obscurity of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. After a rough start, he appears to have won the respect of scientists for his role in enlarging the science budget.
''Keyworth has been very forthcoming'' in working with the science community, says the chief scientist of a congressional subcommittee.
Keyworth says the Reagan administration is out to draw a clear line where federal government research should stop and private-sector development should begin. Much of the science carried out in the '70s at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he says, shows how the government gets involved in areas it should leave alone.
''There's been a lot of activity at EPA to develop monitoring technologies. If you want to have a gadget that measures parts per million of some toxic material, that is a commercial industry,'' Keyworth claims.
Accordingly, EPA faces a deep cut in research funds next year. So does the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which, among other things, has been studying how to improve machine tools, Keyworth points out with disapproval.
One critic who asked not to be named, however, says the NBS cuts will also take away the building research program that, for example, investigated the collapse of a motel walkway in Kansas City. This critic claims the Reagan administration cuts science funds in areas it just doesn't like, such as environmental research. And, as Keyworth admits, there are a sizable number of scientists who think the administration just isn't spending enough on science.
''Money spent on research is one of the best investments a taxpayer can make - and I have to write letters turning down many projects where there's no doubt in my mind the taxpayer would get a good deal,'' says a National Science Foundation section director.