THE appointment of Yale University physicist D. Allan Bromley as President Bush's science adviser is a welcome development. Unlike his two predecessors - George Keyworth II and William Graham - Dr. Bromley is a science policy veteran who is well known to the United States scientific community. He will need the full support of that community - as well as his considerable experience - to help the President make the most of what money Congress can provide for scientific and technological research.
Crucial budget decisions are already being made that could seriously affect United States scientific strength. A Senate resolution, for example, calls for cutting $1.3 billion from the President's already lean budget for general science and space. Most of that would come out of the $2.2 billion requested to keep the Freedom space station program on track. As a letter from nine congressmen to the House Budget Committee explains, such a cut would cripple the program, perhaps killing the space station altogether.
The President's proposed 1990 budget, like previous budgets, is burdened with programs that are not - and perhaps cannot - be adequately funded. Big-ticket items such as the space station or the Superconducting Supercollider particle accelerator are funded annually on schedules that require larger appropriations as the projects develop. This leads to annual wrangles over whether to fund these projected increases fully or even whether to continue a project at all. The result is roller-coaster funding that greatly increases a project's cost or that leads to a project's cancellation after billions of dollars have been spent on it.
There has to be a better way to shape the United States' research effort. Finding that way will be Bromley's main task.
Both Congress and the administration have a growing desire to look at research as a whole rather than in terms of what individual agencies are doing. With that perspective, programs that involve several agencies could be funded as units. This would make it easier to weigh their priority against big hardware projects such as the space station. This would also provide a rational basis for judging in advance whether or not the government could afford a project, given the amount of money likely to be available for research in future years.
Before his appointment, Bromley had expressed support for the space station and the new accelerator. But if he can get a good overview of the President's proposed research effort and compare it with funding realities, he may find that some very worthwhile projects have to go.
The science adviser's job never has been easy. But as Bromley faces up to budget reality, he is likely to find that the job has become even tougher.