Scientists Grapple With Role in Politics Over Research Budget

AN item buried at the bottom of a 50-year-old-newspaper's front page speaks to our time. It reports the public release of a document entitled "Science - the Endless Frontier." In it, Vannevar Bush - wartime czar of United States science and technology - sketched a plan to mobilize the sciences for the peacetime welfare of the nation. That became the blueprint for the unprecedented partnership between the federal government and the laboratories of industry and universities that has made the United States the world's scientific leader.

It is politically correct these days to dismiss that seminal report as out of tune with modern times. The logic that links federal support of science to national well-being is not as clear in public thought as it once was.

Can pursuit of an "endless frontier" ever be outdated? The US science and technology community is wrestling with that question this summer. Its members are alarmed at the 34 percent drop in research funding over the next six years projected by the US Congress's budget resolution. They worry that Congress will opt for careless cuts that damage research and education rather than thoughtful reductions that preserve the vitality of core research.

This has inspired the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to urge Congress to "exercise great caution in making changes of this magnitude." A couple of basic issues illustrate scientists' concerns. First, there's a trend to cut support for graduate students in federal research grants. But graduate students provide much of the personnel for research. This would jeopardize both the research and the education of the next generation of engineers and scientists.

Then there's the tendency to separate basic science from development of its applications. Congress would have government pay for the former while industry would pay for the latter. Scientists insist you can't draw a clean line between the two kinds of research. Much applied research is done with government grants because it isn't far enough along to be commercially attractive. If the government doesn't fund it, nobody will, these scientists say. It is instructive to remember that $5 billion of government-funded university research underlies today's computer and communications industries.

The scientific community is united in its concern. But it is divided in action. For example, when the AAAS held a conference in June for its 285 affiliated scientific and engineering societies, there was no consensus on forming a united front. Each scientific field is lobbying for its own interests. This prompts presidential science adviser John Gibbons to warn that nobody will get a square meal if scientists squabble over table scraps.

The scientific community is naive in its approach to Congress. As former presidential science adviser Allan Bromley put it, there's an "arrogance" that assumes the value of science to society is self evident. This is coupled with what Bromley calls an "ignorance" of how to communicate effectively with Congress. Conversely, many legislators are ignorant of how science works. David Clement, chief of staff for the House Science Committee reminded the June AAAS conference that for many of the new legislators, "science is something they can't see, they don't use themselves, and they don't understand."

It's hard to find common ground when ignorance confronts ignorance. Scientists should get their act together. They need a well-articulated common vision of what they want to convey to Congress and the public. They could do worse than to revisit the Bush report for inspiration.

Bush's letter of transmittal noted: "Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for the task. The rewards of such exploration both for the nation and the individual are great." That vision will never be passe.

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