SOME of the country's greatest assets - its research universities - are facing their biggest crisis in half a century.
These are the universities that focus strongly on scientific and engineering research and integrate it into their teaching. They have propelled the United States into world scientific leadership. Now both the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress have made it clear that the country no longer will support them in the manner to which they have been accustomed. Whatever budget figures emerge from this summer's political wrangling, federal support for university research will decline.
Alarmed administrators and science professors warn of imminent damage to the country's scientific capacity. It need not happen.
The university community should have seen this challenge coming. An unprecedented partnership between the federal government and research universities emerged from World War II. As cold war rivalry intensified, the government bolstered the country's science base. Its support for university research grew at the rate of about 18 percent a year from around 1954 to 1968. Then it essentially leveled off with only small increases.
Now the cold war is over. The old level of support for university-based science is out of balance with society's other needs. Universities must choose which fields of science to emphasize and which to curtail or cut.
Astronomy and physics, in which few jobs await graduate students, will still find homes on some campuses. But most universities must specialize. Each must find its unique character or be lost in a faceless crowd scrambling for reduced federal funds. This will change the mix of science faculty and students on many campuses.
Meanwhile, universities are looking for new revenue from corporate research grants and patents on faculty inventions. This can be helpful, although it won't make up the drop in federal funding. And companies that pay the grants may want first claim on the results. That will challenge universities to maintain their character as open disseminators of knowledge.
What may appear to be a sudden funding crisis brought on by budget-cutting politicians is really a demand for research universities to face up to inevitable cultural change. Each of them needs to rethink its situation and let outmoded aspirations go.
These changes will be painful. But if faculty and administrators embrace them, they may find that they chart a rewarding new path into the future.