Fresh funds for scientific R&D, but with strings
For US scientific and technological research, the horizon is bright with the glow of new money. The National Science Foundation (NSF) now estimates overall funds for research and development (R&D) will have a real growth of about 7 percent in 1984, to reach $97 billion. This, its report says, should benefit both scientific investigation and the applied research that turns basic knowledge to practical use.
But with the promised largess have come omens of a new discipline that many leaders of the research community warn could ultimately weaken US science and engineering.
For one thing, the Reagan administration is targeting its R&D money to areas where it expects the most payoff rather than supporting basic science across the board. This raises concern that research that is ''unfashionable'' today but might be vital tomorrrow will be neglected.
Also, continued governmental pressure to restrict the free flow of research information - information not subject to military secrecy - has alarmed both university officials and some industry leaders. They are concerned that in an attempt to keep US know-how away from the Soviet Union and potential trade competitors, the United States will strangle its own R&D enterprise.
For the US research community, therefore, the outlook is perceived as a ''good news, bad news'' situation.
The good news is reflected in cold numbers. After an era of increasingly tight federal R&D funding, the administration has become more generous. According to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), overall R&D spending should total $85 billion for 1983. The federal government's share is 46 percent, with the rest being paid by industry ( 51 percent) and by foundations and other nonprofit institutions. Now the NSF projects overall R&D spending should grow by 7 percent, in constant dollars, next year if inflation is held to 5 percent in 1983, as estimated by the Office of Management and Budget.
The NSF notes that a 7 percent rise would be well above the 4.4 percent average annual increase of the 1975-83 period. Indeed, if this projection is realized, federal R&D support, which had been lagging, will have at last caught up with that of industry. In contrast to federal funding, industry research support has been the fastest-growing segment of the US economy in recent years.
Thus, in general funding terms, the outlook for American R&D is bright. It is the allocation that disturbs critics. First, 67 percent of federal R&D funding is channeled through the Defense Department. Second, the administration's desire to target its money causes concern.
Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II has been insisting that federal research support is an investment, not an entitlement. Observing that ''science is not on the list of public obligations . . . that have to be funded . . . ,'' he has said that the administration's ''fiscal 1984 program emphasizes selectivity.'' He adds that ''science in the universities and the federal laboratories . . . must be better attuned to the opportunities of the industrial world.''
This rejection of the hoary ethic of science for science' sake ''is clearly a different signal than basic science is accustomed to hearing,'' says AAAS executive officer William D. Carey. He adds that the emphasis on defense-related research plus ''selectivity'' elsewhere leaves him with ''deeper questions'' as to how well the overall scientific enterprise will fare.
Then there is the threat of excessive secrecy. One of the latest aspects is an attempt to assert federal proprietary rights over results of federally funded research. Dissemination or discussion of such results without prior permission would be prohibited except for research papers published in recognized journals. This has goaded Stanford University to issue a public protest. Professors couldn't even discuss their work in class, it notes.
University officials for some time have been fighting what they consider misguided control over nonsecret research. Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, has warned that ''standards and laws preventing open communication would be counterproductive and harmful.''
Speaking from an industry standpoint, Roland W. Schmitt, a senior vice-president of the General Electric Company, has noted that Soviet engineering research is seriously retarded by ''the oppressive bureaucratic ambiance that constantly surrounds the Soviet technologist.'' He asks, ''Do we now want to encumber our system in the same way?'