Sackcloth and Science

OFFICIALS of Washington research-funding agencies seem to wear sackcloth these days.

They mouth the rhetoric of relevance. They confess to supporting basic science across the board instead of targeting what Congress considers socially and economically strategic fields; they promise to do better.

But as today's special report on science policy illustrates, they have little to be ashamed of. The United States leads the world in the breadth and depth of its basic science. Its foreign competitors perceive it as doing a better job than they do of profiting from home-grown research.

President Clinton has a right to rethink US research priorities. However, it should be wary of distorting support for the country's basic-science enterprise. Britain's example is instructive: A decade of government efforts to make basic research more economically "relevant" has left that nation's once-powerful scientific enterprise in a shambles. Top scientists there warn of a long-term loss of competence. Candidate Clinton promised strong support for basic science; but he didn't promise adequate fundin g across the board. The National Science Foundation's current spending plan is disturbing: Under congressional pressure, it boosts support for fashionable fields, such as advanced materials, while cutting back on less economically relevant fields, such as astronomy.

Mr. Clinton endorsed the space station and the superconducting supercollider particle accelerator. He should challenge the wisdom of such big projects if funding them starves less-trendy fields. Clinton also should keep his promise to fight pork-barrel research projects; these siphon nearly a billion dollars annually from various research budgets.

The US scientific effort can be honed to become an ever greater source of national strength. But an ill-considered emphasis on currently fashionable economic or social goals could ruin what already is a good thing.

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