US Science Magnifies Its Social Role

As funding for basic research comes under sharper political scrutiny, scientists around the world are looking for new strategies to support their work: a four-page report

GEORGE BROWN JR., chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is widely respected in the United States scientific community and thought of as a friend. But many members of that community now wince at what their friend is saying.

Mr. Brown, a Democrat from California, is questioning nothing less than their fundamental faith that scientific research pursued for its own sake is an inherently good thing. In opinion pieces published in newspapers and technical magazines, he has been asserting that "society needs to negotiate a new contract with the scientific community ... rooted in the pursuit of explicit, long-term social goals."

This is a call to recognize a new era. Brown says that the present paradigm for science policy was "designed primarily by scientists for scientists." It features what he calls "a distinctive blend of rugged individualism and unfettered competition [that has led] the United States to world leadership in Nobel Prizes." Now scientists are called upon to put their individualism at the service of larger national goals, he says.

What those goals should be and whether and to what extent they should shape the basic research agenda is the central science policy issue facing the Clinton administration.

Most of the $76 billion federal research and development (R&D) budget supports development of the fruits of basic science into useful applications. President Clinton has promised to make that development, which has had a military slant, more relevant to economic growth and other civilian needs. But without the constant infusion of new basic knowledge, the whole R&D enterprise would eventually stagnate.

Daniel Koshland Jr., editor of the journal Science, reflects the concern of many scientists when he warns that "it would be a monstrous policy error to cut back on basic research if a significant increase in jobs or standard of living is wanted."

However, as Dr. Koshland's predecessor at Science, veteran science policy analyst Philip Abelson, has pointed out, "For the foreseeable future, federal support of scientific research is likely to be conditioned by relevance to social goals, with Congress having a major role in specifying the goals."

This is Brown's main point. He urges scientists to become part of that decisionmaking process. His committee has begun a year-long series of hearings expected to resume this month.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be under scrutiny in both the House and the Senate.

Even when added together, the $10.362 billion 1993 appropriation for NIH and the NSF's $1.859 billion research budget are only 16 percent of the federal R&D budget. Yet these two agencies fund some two thirds of the basic research. And their multiyear budgets are up for reauthorization.

NSF director Walter Massey has said he recognizes a need to respond to congressional demands for more research that is relevant to economic and other national goals. Clinton's early signals

President Clinton signaled his interest in such science policy matters with the early designation of John Gibbons as his science adviser. As head of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, Dr. Gibbons brings valuable experience in working with Congress on all facets of science and technology issues. Clinton also has designated Vice President Gore as his top coordinator for science and technology across all agencies.

It is too soon to know what the new administration's science policy will be. But candidate Clinton did give hints as to the direction it might take. Although he made no promises to increase overall R&D spending, he did say he wanted to achieve parity between defense and civil research. Defense now accounts for 60 percent of the $76 billion federal R&D budget. Clinton said he would work toward a 50/50 military/civil ratio.

On the issue of "big science" versus "little science," Clinton said: "Both kinds of science are vital; I do not accept the view that one must be sacrificed in order to sustain the other."

Clinton did promise that "a continued high level of support for research performed by individual researchers and small teams will be a priority." At the same time he promised to support the space station and the supercollider particle accelerator now under construction in Texas. These are the major big science projects that critics claim deprive other areas of space science and physics of adequate funding.

Superficially, such statements would seem to suggest an approach to science policy that continues to emphasize the importance of research to generate basic knowledge while trying to apply the fruits of that research more vigorously to achieve social and economic goals.

Yet they contain no promise to support basic research across the board. They say little about what priorities - if any - should guide that support.

The answer to that $76 billion question should begin to appear when the Clinton administration submits its first research and development budget on March 23.

Responding to congressional calls to emphasize economically and socially relevant research, the NSF submitted a 1993 spending plan last month that reflects this bias. The agency's $1.86 billion research and related activities budget is $14 million less than in 1992, including plans to spend nearly $100 million more in four "strategic" areas - advanced materials and processing ($38 million), biotechnology ($17 million), high-performance computing and communications ($25 million), and manufacturing researc h and education ($17 million).

Meanwhile, basic research in mathematical and physical sciences takes an 8 to 10 percent cut. Astronomy and physics research, for example, respectively take cuts of $9 million and $10 million compared to their 1992 funding.

NSF director Massey told Congress the plan embodies "tough decisions...that will result in funding levels in many programs that will be significantly below last year's level."

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