A High-Return Science Investment
'AMERICAN researchers are under siege," declared a recent cover story headline in a national news magazine. Once again the media reflected the ease with which anti-science rhetoric gains popularity.What's wrong in American science research? We have read reams about its carelessness or misdeeds. To punish all universities or researchers for these isolated instances is to punish the entire nation - the equivalent, not of shooting oneself in the foot, but through the head. There are major problems in science education and research, but they don't spring from blunders by the academic research community but rather from systematic and sustained neglect by the country's research policymakers. We have forgotten that support for basic scientific education and research has come and must come from federal initiative. There is no other adequate source. We have spent huge sums on the space station, SDI, and the superconducting supercollider, while neglecting or sacrificing the smaller, longer-term investments in research. One such investment is the modernization of our university and college research laboratories. Because of years of neglect, many of these facilities are obsolete. This is not a question of little science versus big science, but of preserving the infrastructure that makes both big and little science possible. It requires regular, predictable investments just to keep laboratories abreast of the increasing demands that state-of-the-art science requires, let alone to make up for past deferred maintenance. Many prestigious bodies have urged these investments, including the White House Science Council, the National Academy of Sciences, the Council on Competitiveness, and the Higher Education Colloquium on Science Facilities. The backlog of deferred construction and maintenance of academic research facilities is $12 billion, according to a National Science Foundation (NSF) survey. Yet, rather than doing more, the federal government has done less and has backed away from its long-established linchpin role in supporting our academic research infrastructure. In the mid-'60s, the federal government was contributing about 30 percent to the financing of academic research facilities. Currently that share has fallen to about 10 percent, and most of this is for highly specialized installations for energy, space, and defense research. In light of these facts, I find it difficult to understand the administration's decision, while proposing the continuation and launching of several billion-dollar mega-science projects, to zero out the only federal program in 20 years designed to upgrade research facilities: NSF's Academic Research Facilities Modernization Program. Despite being funded at a meager $40 million for two years (less than 5 percent of its authorization), this merit-based program has been highly successful, leveraging $3 from nonfederal sources for every two of NSF funds invested. THE problems of academic research facilities require more than money, however. What is needed is strong, consistent federal leadership. At a minimum, a meaningful federal response to the problem requires: * A strong presidential initiative to develop a national strategy for the modernization of academic research facilities. This strategy should draw upon past reports that identify potential roles for the parties of interest - the states, industry and foundations, and the universities themselves, as well as the federal government. * Funding of NSF's Academic Research Facilities Modernization Program to its authorized level and creating similar competitive programs in other science agencies. * Restoring for universities tax incentives, which were taken away in 1986, that affect two traditional sources of financing for research facilities: gifts of appreciated property and issuance of tax exempt bonds. Bills to restore these incentives currently are pending in both houses of Congress. * Considered review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the White House Science Adviser's Office, and the Congress of the way universities are currently reimbursed for the costs of their laboratories and instruments used in federally sponsored research. This is under way as part of OMB's review of the research overhead system. We cannot expect our universities and colleges to perform at adequate levels the teaching and research vital to our nation's economy, health, and security if the laboratories are neglected. That neglect will continue unless the president and Congress act.