THE US government finally appears to be recognizing the importance of basic science: President Reagan's proposed 1985 budget would give it 10 percent more money than last year.
There are two immediate challenges. One is for both Congress and the Reagan administration to see that the new $8 billion total is not trimmed in an effort to save money in the current budget squeeze. The second is for both parties to make sure that the priorities of basic research are not warped by spending too much in one area of research, such as that funded by the Department of Defense, and too little in programs funded by civilian organizations.
Funding basic research helps this nation in two ways: by yielding new scientific knowledge, much of which can be used in many fields, and by training technical talent.
The largest increases sought in the proposed administration budget are for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Smaller increases, or reductions, are sought for the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Commerce, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution.
In recent years the scientific community had been concerned that the Reagan administration, and some of its predecessors, were penny-wise but pound-foolish by providing too little money for basic research. Many American scientists pointed out that both commercial and defense interests would be hampered by a lack of fundamental new technical information to convert into new consumer products and defensive weaponry. Their concern deepened early in the Reagan administration when funds for research were trimmed.
Today scientists are cautiously optimistic, with the administration's decision to recommend the funding boost. But, like cautious poultry farmers who won't count chickens until eggs hatch, they're not celebrating until the proposal survives the annual budget-cutting efforts and becomes a Congress-passed reality.