Setting US R&D Policy

WHILE health-care reform gets the spotlight, another Clinton initiative quietly inches along: the effort to couple the $75 billion-a-year federal research-and-development (R&D) effort more closely to ``national goals.''

It began as a campaign promise. It was given bureaucratic form last November as the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). It now has received a philosophical foundation in the administration's long-awaited ``Science in the National Interest'' report.

The new report reiterates that the president wants research to contribute more strongly to national needs in such areas as education, environmental quality, and new technologies, as well as in defense. Yet it is vague in terms of funding allocations for specific research.

Vice President Gore and presidential science adviser John Gibbons repeatedly have said that the nation should maintain a strong basic research effort across the scientific spectrum. Yet funding-agency officials, such as National Science Foundation director Neal Lane, warn that research proposals that bear on acknowledged national needs have the edge in competing for limited funds. Does that mean that archeology and astronomy will be shortchanged while advanced materials or advanced computing win favor? Must basic space science shrink to continue support for the space station, as seems to be the case in practice?

Scientific groups and the Congress have pressed the administration for detailed answers to such questions. Yet the administration continues to disappoint them. The NSTC provides a mechanism at the highest White House level for developing and executing a detailed policy. Nominally chaired by the president, its members include Cabinet secretaries and heads of independent science agencies. Yet its first - and so far only - meeting wasn't held until June.

The new report is vague on details because they haven't been worked out yet. The council - which works through nine committees -

is conducting a major review of how the R&D system functions. It is also reviewing results of two major forums on research policy held earlier in the year.

The council must work quickly if the detailed budget requests that the president submits to Congress early next year are to reflect a new, coherent strategy for American R&D. Without such clear leadership, it will be bumble along as usual, with Congress filling in the details.

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