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US public says, 'No blank checks for scientific research'

The US public likes science and technology, has faith in its experts, but isn't about to sign a blank check for fundamental research. Crudely put, that seems to be a basic conclusion one can draw from a survey run by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

It supports a point made by Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin when a delegation of savants, including six Nobel laureates, asked the House Budget Committee for more research money recently. "You have a political problem," he told them. "You are not going to win it here until you win it [out] there."

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There seems to be a lingering naivete among many US scientists which blinds them to the fact that the public does not share their conviction that basic research should be supported simply because it is an uplifting cultural pursuit.

The survey involved 1,635 men and women selected from various parts of the country in a statistically valid way so that this small sample can be taken as representative of public opinion generally.

Some 70 percent believed that society gained more benefit than harm from science and technology, which brought higher living standards. Over 80 percent believed scientific knowledge raised standards of health and comfort. About 90 percent also thought that decisions as to the directions research should take are best left to experts in specific fields since people generally do not know enough to decide such matters.

However, when asked to rank research areas that should be supported by tax dollars, applied research won out over basics. The top three favorites were health, new energy sources, and education, in that order. Space exploration and basic knowledge about man and nature ranked among areas least deserving of public funding.

It is clear that the conviction many scientists seem to hold about basic research -- namely that it should be supported for its own sake -- is unrealistic. This may be true in a historical sense, considering the many practical benefits that have come from pursuit of basic knowledge.But the public doesn't see it that way.

As Rep. Robert L. Livingston (R) of Louisiana noted at the budget hearing, there is a "drastically different" political climate today which demands fiscal restraint. He suggested scientists set research priorities. However, the delegationhs position paper insisted: "The problem cannot be solved by redistributing limited funds. Additional appropriations are clearly necessary. . . ."

Such a statement certainly is naive and could be considered arrogant. US scientists should come out of their ivory towers, listen to Representative Obey, and build grassroots support. If they can convince the public their work is worth funding, they won't have trouble with Congress.

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