US scientists eager to see the thrust of Reagan R&D budget

Intrigued by a White House budget request that generally treats research kindly, the United States scientific community is eager to learn its details. Budget materials released Jan. 5 merely outline proposed funding. Documents to be sent to Congress today, and projects that may be highlighted in the President's State of the Union address tomorrow evening, will present the program-by-program plan.

A major uncertainty is the status of a proposed giant particle accelerator called the Superconducting Super Collider. Proponents of this $6 billion, 50 mile-circumference machine consider it an essential next step in probing the basic nature of matter. It is ``superconducting'' because the coils of magnets which guide beams of subatomic particles are cooled to the point that they lose all resistance to electric currents -- a power-saving technique. It's a ``collider'' because beams of protons smash together head-on, allowing physicists to study particle interactions.

Department of Energy budget planners have set aside $60 million for the project in fiscal 1988. But as of this writing, the White House had not yet announced its decision on whether or not to start this expensive new project. If President Reagan does decide to go ahead with it, he may say so tomorrow.

Overall, the President's $62.4 billion research and development (R&D) fund is up $4.7 billion, or 8 percent, from the current fiscal year (FY 1987). It accounts for 6 percent of the total $1.024 trillion requested budget.

Science adviser William R. Graham says this request continues an administration commitment to building a broad base of scientific and engineering knowledge to support the US economy and enable US industry to compete more effectively abroad. But there are significant losers (notably biomedical research) as well as winners within the research spectrum.

As Dr. Graham notes, the emphasis is military. Adding the Department of Energy's $2.7 billion defense research allocation to the Defense Department's $43.7 billion R&D funds (an 18.4 percent boost) accounts for 74.4 percent of the research budget. That includes $5.3 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative. In contrast, overall basic research gains only 4 percent to total $9.7 billion or about 15.5 percent of the research budget.

But the National Science Foundation, which supports much basic science and engineering work, does get favored treatment. Its requested budget of $1.9 billion is up 16.6 percent over FY 1987. What may be more important in the long run is an administration plan to double the NSF budget by 1992. That would mean 14 percent increases in each of the four years following FY 1988. This is a personal victory for NSF director Erich Bloch, who calls the budget ``a watershed event for NSF.''

There's no such elation at the National Institutes of Health. Congress authorized $6.2 billion for NIH for FY 1987. It also required, by law, that NIH fund 6,400 new research grants in 1987. Now the administration wants Congress to rescind that law and allow it to defer spending $334 million of the 1987 funds until FY 1988. This would bring both the actual FY 1987 budget and the requested FY 1988 funding to a level of about $5.8 billion. That would only allow NIH to fund 5,700 new 1987 grants.

Just how NIH would absorb such a cut is the kind of budget detail biomedical researchers want to see. Possible beneficiaries of National Science Foundation largess are also interested in the details of how that agency would use its enhanced funding. NSF has been establishing centers for engineering research at selected universities where academic and industrial researchers can work together. Now Dr. Bloch wants to expand the program to set up centers in other fields.

Space scientists are also interested in how NASA plans to support their work. With much of the agency's attention devoted to getting the shuttle back into operation and moving forward with the space station, basic space science is essentially marking time.

NASA's overall R&D funding request of $2.6 billion is down some 15.6 percent from the previous year. The White House discouraged NASA's hopes to start a comet/asteroid mission and the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility project. It did allow a $25 million request for an international program to study Earth-Sun interaction. But another year's delay in what NASA considers two important science missions is a substantial setback for space scientists.

Even with the detailed budget available, the US scientific community won't know exactly what support to expect until Congress acts. Defense R&D funds, which have been cut in past years, may well be cut again. Congressional supporters of NIH will resist the effort to stretch out that agency's funding. The ``watershed'' budget for the National Science Foundation may also run into trouble. Last year, Congress trimmed a requested 14 percent NSF boost to 9 percent.

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