The growth rate in federal spending for basic science is likely to shrink at the hands of budget cutters. In the first of a four-part series, The Monitor examines trends in federal spending for science. Subsequent installments deal with specific disciplines in which small changes in funding can have a major effect on programs AS presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II puts it, ``these are hard-ball days'' for United States science.
Administration policy features strong support for basic research as an essential element of national strength -- a point that the normally upbeat science adviser often stresses.
But given the zeal of White House and congressional budget cutters to curb federal spending, Dr. Keyworth and the rest of the US scientific community would happily settle for what his associate John McTague calls ``some care and some discrimination'' in restraining research funds.
President Reagan's budget had not yet been released at this writing. That meant that officials who know what is likely to be in it couldn't discuss it. However, ``there is no question'' that the growth rate in funding for scientific research ``won't be what it was,'' Dr. McTague warns.
In the past, that growth rate has been substantial.
Last year, federal funding for basic nonmilitary research grew 9.2 percent in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation) and 15 percent in current dollars. It has risen almost 60 percent in current dollars over the past four years.
Scientists who had been skeptical of Dr. Keyworth's appointment as Mr. Reagan's science adviser now tip their hats to the man they once called ``George Who?'' He has reversed what had been a worrisome decline in support for basic research. Big promises for science policy
Harold Hanson, executive director of the House Committee on Science and Technology, says, ``Keyworth has been pretty darn effective. But this time there are more powerful forces at work. He probably won't be able to deliver on all the promises.''
Keyworth has promised a good deal on behalf of the administration. Outlining the main science policy themes for Reagan's second term at a meeting of science writers on Oct. 31, he listed the following:
Continued strong growth of basic research, especially in universities.
Continued emphasis on programs to ensure more and better-trained technical talent.
Coordinated efforts to narrow the gap between university ivory towers and workaday industry.
Continued strong growth for military research and development (R&D).
Continued demarcation between what government funding should do and what private resources should do in supporting R&D.
Keyworth calls the administration's support for basic research ``an important turnaround'' after years of sluggish funding.
But the picture is different for R&D (as distinct from basic research). Federal nonmilitary R&D as a whole has grown very little during the past few years. As a percentage the gross national product (GNP), federal funding for all R&D, including the military, remained virtually level at 1.2 percent from 1975 to '84, according to National Science Foundation figures. Total R&D spending
In real (constant-dollar) terms, total R&D budgets were largely flat from 1975 to '83. This began to change, at least in part, as the result of higher defense spending. Real growth in total federal spending for R&D reached 13 and 9 percent for the past two years respectively.
In a federal R&D budget that favors the military, gains for basic research have come more from juggling priorities than from new funds.
Basic research acquired money that formerly would have gone to technological development as the Reagan administration shifted more responsibility for that development to the private sector. Funds for basic research in fiscal 1985 run to just under $8 billion -- up from $5 billion in 1981 (constant dollars). This includes a 30 percent gain for universities. The real gainer, however, is military research -- up 68 percent over the same period. It accounts for 70.2 percent of the fiscal '85 federal R&D budget. Also, some of the basic-research funds for universities come from the Defense Department.
Even with restraint, however, the US will still mount what is probably the strongest R&D effort in the world.
This fiscal year the country as a whole is expected to invest some $110 billion in R&D -- more money than will be invested by France, Japan, West Germany, and Britain combined.
That amounts to about 2.7 percent of US GNP, compared with 2.3 percent in 1975. This is in line with what other technologically advanced countries invest. Thus, the amount of money the US is spending is not so surprising, given the size of its GNP.
What is striking to observers of US research funding is the fact that private industry's share of that total is now slightly more than that of the federal government, which runs to about $52.7 billion for fiscal 1985. Dangerous shift in support
There is a hidden danger in this shift, some experts warn. As a matter of policy, the administration is looking to industry for the inventive technology the country needs: It deliberately cut back on supporting developmental research (except for the military).
This basic fact seems to have dropped out of sight in the scramble to reduce the deficit, as William D. Carey, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, points out.
``Where I have real concern is . . . with the tax dispensation,'' he says. He explains that reversing tax credits for research and taxing capital gains more heavily -- as in the Treasury Department's tax plan -- could seriously affect the investment of venture capital and industrial funds in R&D.
He warns that ``if we fool around too much . . . we could have some very unhappy surprises,'' adding, ``this area of fiscal policy seems to be nobody's business -- not Congress's, not Treasury's, not OMB's [Office of Management and Budget], not the White House's. That blind spot worries me.''
Then there is the issue of gathering federal science activities under the wing of a new Cabinet-level department. This oft-floated concept has been revived by the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness.
Indeed, it is one of the commission's chief recommendations. It seems unlikely to get anywhere. Congress is cool to the notion. Unless the President himself pushes it strongly, Congress probably won't even look at it, according to Dr. Hanson.
Asked if he were cautiously optimistic about support for US science, Dr. McTague says, ``I see no sign that basic science is being treated other than with care and consideration. I don't know whether you can call that optimism.'' -- 30 --