Today it is clear that modern society depends on science and technology. Yet the issue of science policy has been virtually invisible in the current presidential campaign.
At a meeting last week of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, however, the basic views of President Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale on this subject were aired.
The President was represented by his science adviser, George A. Keyworth II. Standing in for the Mondale ticket was John Holdren, an energy analyst from the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Holdren is a member of the national committee of an organization called Science Community for Mondale-Ferraro.
In his remarks, Dr. Keyworth explained the Reagan administration's basic approach to science funding.
Turning scientific insights into practical products, he said, proceeds in three general steps: basic science, applied research, and commercial development , or R&D for short. Previously, the federal government lavished more money on technology development than basic research, Keyworth asserted. And this, he said , has been a big mistake. An example is the billions the federal government has spent on energy technologies in the past decade.
''Basic research is clearly the federal government's responsibility, while development of new commercial technologies is appropriately and wisely left to the private sector,'' he elaborated. The exception is military research, where the government is the only customer.
By slashing federal development programs, the Reagan administration has been able to boost basic research substantially. At the same time it has substantially increased defense-related science outlays.
Not all types of basic research have been treated equally, Keyworth continued. The reason the administration supports basic science is not altruism but pragmatism.
''The driving force that's causing so much reevaluation and change in our approach to R&D is the sheer pervasiveness of science and technology in the world today. And one inescapable manifestation of that change is the degree to which industry rises or falls on its technological advantages - and the rise of fierce foreign competition for sales in the world market and especially in our own very large domestic market,'' Keyworth said.
Thus, federal funding has also been determined by each project's ''relevance.'' The administration has singled out ''those areas where we could sense the impacts that advances in a field of research would have on society, or where we would see the pure scientific excitement waiting to be turned loose.'' In many cases, these are areas where there is clear industrial interest.
Besides ''the fundamental knowledge that drives the process of innovation,'' US industries also need government support to provide the technically trained people who can use that knowledge, Keyworth added. Thus, the administration is committed to bolstering science and engineering at the nation's colleges and universities. The main way the administration has done this is to increase support for university research. A new program at the National Science Foundation is establishing a series of cross-disciplinary engineering research centers at various universities, places where faculty from different departments can work together on industrially related problems.
Mondale spokesman Holdren complimented the Reagan administration for its record on basic research. But he pointed out that nondefense R&D has fallen in the last four years, when inflation is taken into account. Mr. Mondale is committed to increasing basic research by 3 percent annually, Holdren reported.
In addition, Mondale intends to apply most of the money that President Reagan has earmarked for its strategic defense initiative to other types of R&D. Rather than escalating spending on ''star wars'' systems from a current $1 billion to $ 5.7 billion in fiscal 1989, Mondale backs a 5 percent annual increase, freeing about $2.6 billion a year for other purposes.
Some of this cash undoubtedly would go toward areas such as solar-energy and energy-efficiency research. Holdren pointed out that these areas were severely cut in Reagan's first two years. The justification for this approach was that it is more appropriately conducted by the private sector. But this same logic was not applied to commercial nuclear power, in support of which the administration continues to request larger budgets than for fossil-fuels, renewable-energy, and energy-conservation studies combined, Holdren complained.
The Democratic candidate would also emphasize environmental research. The Environmental Protection Agency's R&D budget was cut by more than half between 1980 and '84, at a time when the agency's responsibilities were increasing. Mondale considers this situation ''a scandal'' and is committed to fix it, Holdren said.
Outer space is also a point of disagreement. Reagan is committed to an $8 billion manned space-station program, which Mondale opposes. The Democrat would prefer to spend the money on ''more cost-effective'' unmanned space probes, similar to those that have sent back pictures of other planets like Jupiter and Saturn.
Space science illustrates another difference between the two men, Holdren said. The Reagan administration's ''excessive concern with secrecy'' led to a refusal in May 1982 to renew a 10-year-old agreement on US-Soviet space cooperation, he charged, despite the fact that the Soviets have a vigorous space-science program and have been forthcoming in past collaborations.
The current administration also ended US participation in the International Institute for Applied System Analysis, the only international think-tank where Eastern and Western scientists collaborate on global resource, environmental, and economic development problems.
In the last four years, the government has also interfered to an unprecedented extent in scientific exchanges with foreign colleagues, he charged.
Since its earliest days, science has been an international effort.
Mondale is committed to reducing barriers against exchange of scientific information and supporting international scientific cooperation, Holdren said. Keyworth, on the other hand, said it is ''naive'' to consider science above politics.
The Democratic ticket does not have a detailed position on support for social science, Holdren admitted. However, he criticized Reagan's handling of these disciplines.
Funding for social and behavioral science has been uncoordinated and seemingly capricious, he charged. Keyworth claimed that the administration has only cut social research programs that were judged to be less scientifically valuable.
''In the future, I think you will see increased funding for targeted social science research,'' Keyworth rebutted.