PRESIDENT REAGAN's 1989 budget would boost general science spending in the United States by 20 percent. But even if Congress grants this, the country will still face the grim possibility of falling behind the rest of the world in its scientific endeavor. Veteran science analyst William D. Carey of the Carnegie Corporation warns that ``the United States could find itself a debtor nation'' in science and technology by the end of the decade - having to import the bulk of its scientific knowledge.
Actually, the Reagan years have been somewhat favorable for basic science. But ravages of prior neglect persist. Paul Doty, emeritus director of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, noted during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that, under Reagan, the basic science budget grew 6 percent a year in constant dollars until last year. Yet, he said, ``this seemed like mere survival because of the stagnation in funding that had occurred in the decade before.''
He explained: ``The total expenditures for basic research declined from 1969 and rose to equal that same figure only in 1978.... This is to be compared with the decade of the '60s, in which there was more than a doubling of federal funding of basic research expenditures.
``And if we go to R&D [research and development] as a whole, the federal investment had even a longer period of stagnation - 16 years from 1966 to 1982 - before it started upward again. And since, in both cases, the professional personnel had been growing at a rate of 5 or 6 percent a year, the support per worker had clearly declined and the improvement in the 1980s has not yet provided a compensation.
``So, in addition to the inevitable squeeze in budgets which we face, the possibility of continued improvement in the basic research area - or in the R&D area - is by no means going to be adequate to recover our earlier position.''
Doty added that this situation is exacerbated by the fact that the country is not producing enough doctoral-level researchers to meet its needs. He noted that, from 1959 to 1973, the output of science and engineering doctorates grew at a rate that doubled in 10 years. But there has been no growth in output at all since then. Also, more than half of the 3,000 engineering doctorates and one-quarter of the 15,000 science doctorates awarded each year now go to foreign nationals. Meanwhile, many other countries have accelerated advanced education of scientific and engineering personnel.
Thus, both from the funding and the personnel viewpoints, the United States is slipping behind in scientific capacity. President Reagan's attention to basic science has been welcome. But his successor has an urgent problem to solve.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.