Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Progress in science is the business of the government

As the smoke clears above the battlefields of the 1982 [US] budget, we find that funds for scientific research and development survived quite well, despite a few direct hits and near misses. Mainstream science, largely of the physical and biological stamp, fared better than expected, and even basic research -- highly vulnerable to disciples of "bottom line" scorekeeping -- passed its examinations with honors.

But there is no sound of celebration in the scientific community. Eyeing the fiscal disaster that has been visited upon the social sciences, international scientific commitments, graduate training programs, and science and math education [which sustained deep or near total budget cuts], scientists are hard put to fathom any policy substance, beyond numbers in the budget, to indicate the government's long- range intentions for the advancement of science and technology. As it happens, the long range is what counts since science and innovation breed and procreate over decades. "Steady as she goes" is the rule, not playful leaps and unscheduled pauses.

About these ads

What is important is that the intentions and expectations of the government partner in the scientific enterprise be spelled out and adhered to over the life of an administration.For all that Jimmy Carter is abused, the annals will credit his years with a sound grasp of the potential and limitations of science, and an architecture of policies that had form and strength. That did not save him because science is not a political force, and scientists vote the issues with as much independence and aggravation as nonscientists.

Why not just take the money and run? One reasons is that scientific research is not part of what [Budget Director] David Stockman calls the coast-to-coast soup kitchen. But there are better reasons.

There is no doubt at all that science and its offspring, technology, have become high cards in the esoteric business of foreign, defense, and economic policy. This being so, it matters very much that policies take pains to make sure that the pursuit of science and innovation attracts the best minds and the best teachers, and that the science we do is of surpassing imagination and quality.

Money is not the whole guarantee of lively science and first-rate education. Purposefulness and a series of priorities count just as much, but we are considerably better off in finances than we are in motivation and concern. It shows in the neglect of science and math in the schools, the growing gap separating the typical citizen from scientific literacy, and the odd perception in Washington that none of this is the business of the federal government.

It turns out that it is, apparently, nobody's business. A decade from now this will take some explaining because science will have used up the capital it built in the '60s and '70s and the decline in the United States scientific leadership will look very much like the decline we have already seen in technological advantage, but for quite different reasons.

The dependence of the US upon its scientific and technical assets in foreign, defense, and economic policies -- leaving aside the large problems of domestic living standards, energy and water resources, and environmental protection and land use management -- would cause a reasonable person to assume that the advancement of science and innovation would be a concern and a worry in those centers of the governmental machinery responsible for foreign affairs, national security, and the domestic economy. If one were a Soviet citizen, or a citizen of Japan or the People's Republic of China, such an assumption would be based on fact. In our own case, one can read back over a whole shelf of annual Economic Reports of the President without finding more than passing mention of either science or technology, and usually not even that much.

The managers of our national security look upon science and technology as current assets for improving weapons and communications, but pay scant heed to the quality or depth of science as a factor making up the nation's technology base. The State Department, though charged by law to coordinate federal science programs touching on international affairs, lags by at least a decade in integrating science with diplomacy and begrudges allocating funds and positions to international scientific affairs, the budget for which comes in a poor last somewhere below the sums budgeted for buildings and grounds. If all this mystifies our friends and delights our adversaries and competitors, it is small wonder.

About these ads

Not very much attention is paid to the underutilization of scientific research and development capacity, which is passing strange if we regard science as a national resource. If we set out to define what this capacity consists of, we would quantify the supply of scientists and engineers, the strength of the institutions that produce these people, the stock of knowledge banked but not yet expended, and the potentialm of the system if it were operating at full capacity instead of half or three-fourths of capacity. Slack in this system, and slack there is, represents lost or foregone productivity relative to the potential that we could call upon. Whether this is a serious problem or a reasonable choice, given the need to cap federal spending and bring inflation to heel, is a matter of opinion and priorities. It is, in any case, a matter as to which choice should be made and explained. Ignoring it is policymaking under inertia.

if one asks for an illustration of stifled potential, a handy example is found in space science and applications. This is, to be sure, an open-ended threat to the balanced budget so ardently being pressed as the nation's salvation. Even so, there is something approaching the scandalous in the vista of a magnificent scientific and technological infrastructure being kept on hold, and in the knowledge that a vast investment of money, risk, and skills is not yielding anything like the returns of which it is capable. Meanwhile, the investment deteriorates. With some effort and imagination, joint international ventures could be assembled with the US taking the lead in global space initiatives, with cost-sharing, that might give the people of the world some hope akin to the "second chance" they were given by the voyages of Columbus.

Over the decade of the '80s, government and business will spend about $1 trillion on research and development. Unlike other countries, we make no attempt to focus or jointly plan governmental and private sector science and technology, and the very thought would be offensive to the current powers-that-be. But when resources are critical, and when we are racing the time constants, rationalization becomes the essence of conservatism if, by that term, we mean the care and enhancement of basic assets.

To the extent that rationalization of science policy occurs at all within the government sector, it takes place through the budget process which at times has served well to deny or postpone spending but has never been thought of as a process for measuring the nation's potential and designing investment policies to reach it. In the private sector, rationalization of research and innovation is out of the question because of proprietary interests, not to speak of fines or jail sentences under antitrust laws.

So, we know that the US will put $1 trillion into research and development in this decade, without benefit of either general consensus or deliberate rationalization, and if it somehow works out we will credit luck and intuition. If it doesn't, we will know why.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.