A NUMBER of other nations rival the United States in the quality of scientific and engineering research. Taken together, they also match US research in scope. But American research universities remain the envy of the world. Now ill-considered action in Congress threatens this unique resource.
Following the lead of its chairman, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, the House defense appropriations subcommittee has voted to cut $900 million from the $1.46 billion that the Defense Department sought to fund university research in the next fiscal year. Last month, the entire House approved the cut. If such a sudden drastic funding cut were to become law, America's research universities would be devastated.
University administrators and their congressional backers considered this unthinkable. When Mr. Murtha made his move, they were confident that the Senate would restore the money. It now is apparent that many representatives and some senators find such a research cut thinkable and doable.
In the post-cold-war era, it may be sensible to scale back defense-supported university research. The danger lies in cutting too much too quickly. Defense money has been a key sustainer of university research in the physical sciences since the end of World War II. At first, it was the main support for geophysics - including meteorology and oceanography - and a wide spectrum of electronic disciplines. Eventually, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Ad- ministration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration picked up much of the tab.
Still, the Pentagon supports important oceanographic work. It also funds 55 percent of computer science research, 70 percent of advanced materials research, and 80 percent of electrical engineering research. The knowledge attained has been used to develop equipment for the military and commercial products. To suddenly cut support for such research would destroy many university labs, disperse research teams, and cripple the education of tomorrow's experts.
The Senate should restore most, if not all, of the requested funding. Then Congress and the Clinton administration should take a hard look at how university research should be supported. If the traditional defense patronage no longer is appropriate, a new system should be developed that will preserve the research strength the US has worked so long to develop.