Funding Squeeze Challenges US Research

AS president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Richard Atkinson, a professor at the University of California in San Diego, warned a year ago that the United States needs more PhD research scientists. Now, speaking as AAAS president-elect, University of Chicago Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman laments that the country doesn't support the university scientists and PhD candidates that it already has. ``American science shows signs of extreme distress,'' he says. He notes that lack of money turns many students away from university careers while some of their professors consider bailing out. He adds that the ``troubled mood'' he finds at American research universities ``is so pervasive that it raises serious questions about the very future of science in the United States.''

There may be a pinch of hyperbole in such a statement from a scientific leader renowned for his colorful language. Yet the questions touch a raw nerve in the United States scientific community, which has been concerned over the funding squeeze for many years.

But there is no agreement as to whether the cure is simply more money or more rational use of the money already available.

Dr. Lederman has wrapped up his concern in a self-initiated report to the board of directors of the AAAS. It's based on an informal survey of scientists at 50 research universities. He acknowledges that the 250 replies are not a sound statistical base from which to draw conclusions.

But he believes they document ``a depth of despair and discouragement [among university scientists] that I have not experienced in my 40 years in science.''

This concern resonates in the hearts of many - but not all - American scientists. Critics note that the Angst Lederman reports isn't universal. They agree that, where it is felt, lack of funding is the cause. Yet, in the race after funds, there are winners as well as losers.

Lederman urges that all worthwhile research proposals be funded. He recommends doubling the roughly $10 billion in federal funding for academic research. However, when he made his case at a meeting held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington earlier this month, even some of his sympathizers dissented.

Academy president Frank Press noted that ``no nation can write a blank check for science.'' He added that the scientific community should heed policymakers' repeated request that it help set funding priorities.

There is general agreement that the cost of research has risen faster than overall inflation. There are more scientists to support than two decades ago. Modern equipment is more sophisticated and inherently more costly than equipment used to be.

But, while presidential science adviser Alan Bromley also warns of underinvestment in research, he too urges a need to set priorities.

National Academy of Engineering president Robert White has put the issue bluntly by saying the entire research funding process needs overhaul. He notes that the notion that all worthy research should be funded encourages expectations that cannot be fulfilled.

The issue of how best to support American basic science has simmered for years. Lederman is trying to get his colleagues to face it squarely. More power to him.

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