AS the president and Congress lay ax to the federal budget, the White House is trying to protect one key investment: federal support for science and technology.
That support took root 50 years ago this spring, when FDR's science adviser, Vannevar Bush, issued a report that laid the groundwork for the postwar expansion of federal funding for science. That backing helped catapult the country into its position as the world's leading economic and technological power.
But discretionary spending, which includes the money for R&D, is being squeezed between fast-rising Medicare and Medicaid costs and interest on the federal debt on one side, and efforts to cut the deficit on the other.
For science and technology in fiscal 1996, President Clinton has requested $72.9 billion, a 0.2 percent increase over 1995. Although this fails to keep pace with inflation, it still represents a substantial investment, say many in the science community, who look elsewhere in the budget request and see 140 programs terminated, 271 consolidated, and still others cut substantially.
''What's striking about this budget is its generosity toward research,'' agrees Kathleen Gramp, a chief budget analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
Last August, the White House set out its R&D priorities in ''Science in the National Interest.'' It notes that United States leadership in science and technology must be maintained and underlines the administration's support for basic research. It also aims to throw the weight of federal support behind basic research that focuses on national needs, such as the economy and health.
Yet ''we're under severe fiscal constraints,'' says John Gibbons, Mr. Clinton's science adviser.
To meet its goals while holding the rein on spending, the White House has shifted R&D money among various agencies. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency, which supports research in areas ranging from global warming to pollution-eating microbes, would see a 15.8 percent increase in its R&D budget. The Pentagon and the Agriculture Department, however, post losses of more than 3 percent for R&D.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's budget rises slightly from $9.46 billion last year to $9.52 billion. And funds for the National Science Foundation, which supplies up to half of all federal support for nonmedical research at universities, would grow at the rate of inflation.
Dr. Gibbons says he expects an intense debate to center around the administration's efforts to develop partnerships between government and industry in developing high-risk technologies. Within the Commerce Department, for example, the National Institute for Standards and Technology is slated for a 20 percent increase in funding. Nearly half of that money would underwrite research on high-risk technologies through the institute's advanced-technology program (ATP).
Yet efforts such as the ATP strike many Republicans, including House Science Committee chairman Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania, as industrial policy, which rankles conservatives.
Beyond this debate, however, lie concerns over funding in 1997 and beyond.
''The interesting thing about the budget is that while it is generous in 1996, after that you will see declines,'' says the AAAS's Ms. Gramp.
The budget goals for the ''out years'' are tough, even before thinking about the deeper cuts implied in the GOP efforts to pass a balanced-budget amendment, says Martha Krebs, head of the Energy Department's Office of Energy Research. ''But the American people are making a strong statement about balancing the budget. All of us are going to have to change the way we do business.''