AMERICAN scientists and engineers have a big stake in the fate of President Clinton's economic stimulus package.
Tucked in along with highway repairs and summer jobs is a $445 million supplement to the current (1993) federal research and development budget.
This is the opening gambit in the administration's budgetary game plan for prodding the American research enterprise to become what presidential science adviser John Gibbons calls a more effective "engine for economic growth."
Dr. Gibbons and other administration science officials have talked vaguely about this for several months. Now a first-cut analysis of the fiscal 1994 (FY94) budget request, which the administration released a little over week ago, has begun to bring their strategy into focus.
Gibbons described its essence during a colloquium on science-and-technology policy that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held here last Thursday and Friday. He pointed out that the FY94 budget would hold overall funding to a 3.1 percent cost-of-living increase in the $76 billion total research budget - a rise of $2.3 billion. But it would feed favored fields - especially in applied research - more richly. AAAS budget analyst Stephen Nelson emphasized this same point, saying,
"the story really is in the [budget's] details." He explained that "they have tried to be very selective in terms of what was being supported." At the same time, the budget planners are trying to provide strong support where they think it is needed.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a case in point. The administration wants to boost the NSF budget by $447 million, partly to support more economically relevant research. That's a lot for Congress to swallow. So the boost would come in two installments. The economic stimulus package would add $207 million to NSF's current budget. The FY94 request includes another $240 million increase for the agency.
Other favored fields include a 22.5 percent ($300 million) increase for transportation. This covers new developments in such areas as aeronautics, so-called intelligent cars, and high-speed rail. Commercially related research would go up 35.5 percent ($200 million) largely through National Institute of Standards and Technology partnership programs with industry.
Gibbons warns that the budget also holds elements of "triage," meaning that hard choices are being made between equally worthwhile programs. The national Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports most US biological and biomedical research, are an example. Clinton wants to raise the overall NIH budget by $329 million. That's a 3.2 percent raise that barely keeps up with inflation. Yet he also wants to boost AIDS and breast cancer research by $443 million. NIH would have to cut elsewhere to make up the $1 44 million difference. There would be fewer research grants to scientists in other fields. It is not clear that Congress will go along with the administration's strategy. Kevin Kelley, clerk of the subcommittee that handles independent agencies for the Senate Committee on Appropriations says a big National Science Foundation increase "will be a tough sell this year." If the NSF 1993 supplement is lost from the stimulus package, getting what the administration wants for that agency will be even tougher. Cong ress, which favors biomedical research, may also look for cuts elsewhere to give NIH more money.
Moreover, there's uncertainty over space station cost. There is a $2.3 billion unspecified "place holder" item in the $15.7 billion national Aeronautics and Space Administration budget request.
UT NASA won't really know what to ask for until it reports its station redesign study June 7. As William Smith, a subcommittee staff director for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology observed, such an unspecified item is a tempting target for congressional budget trimmers. Gibbons acknowledges there's a hard budget fight ahead. He admits that the Clinton request, at this stage, has involved "a bit of sausage making" since it was put together quickly in 60 days. He expects it will change somewhat. Nevertheless, the administration will fight for the essence of this research program. As Gibbons says, it reflects the fact that "the administration is placing a very heavy bet that ... the science and technology community, given support and encouragement, can provide ... one of the ... principal engines for growth."
To judge from comments made during the AAAS meeting, that community is reserving judgment. Its members are unsure what to expect until the budget priorities finally are set in the fall. As Cornelius Pings, president of the Association of American Universities, observed, what does seem certain is that "change is afoot in the land." He added that scientists should beware of promising more economic relevance than they can deliver in the struggle to gain support.