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Will budget cuts force US to yield leadership in scientific research?

Stung by criticisms that it is weakening US research, the Reagan administration wants to forge a new partnership with the US scientific community.

But President Reagan is unrepentant of the budget cutting that has aroused the widespread alarm.

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Scientists listened politely to the administration message here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). However, they remain alarmed.

In his keynote, presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth acknowledged -- as did other officials at an earlier symposium on research funding -- that relations between the federal government and US university scientists were especially strained. They emphasized their faith in scientific research as critical to the nation's welfare.

But, repeating a position that has contributed to scientists' alarm, Dr. Keyworth and some of the others said the US no longer can expect to be a leader across the board in the sciences. They appealed to universities, in particular, to take a ''realistic'' view of US needs. They urged academic scientists to join with them in making what Dr. Keyworth called the ''hard choices'' needed to slough off ''less productive research areas.''

Gaining such cooperation won't be easy. AAAS president Allan Bromley summarized the scientists' concern: ''At a time when internal activities in science and technology are perhaps more exciting than they have been in decades, we face some of the most serious external problems ever encountered by the science and technology enterprise in this century.

''Following a year marked by change, confusion, and great alarm concerning federal support of research . . . the fraction of our resources now being invested in long-term research and development is at a low ebb. It is nowless than at any time since World War II. Investment by US industries in research as a percentage of US sales has decreased by one-third between 1968 and 1980. These , too, are matters of serious concern.''

But Dr. Keyworth noted:

* ''The United States spends more money on research and development than any other country. . . .''

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* ''The ratio of research and development to gross national product in the United States compares favorably with that of other major industrialized countries.''

* ''The award of Nobel prizes provides another measure of the health of US science. . . . The total for the past decade: 57 Nobel prizes for US scientists compared with 28 abroad.'

It is hard to reconcile the claim of declining US scientific strength with these facts, Dr. Keyworth said.

Scientists here shake their heads sadly and point out that Nobel prizes reflect past achievements, sometimes decades in the past. They are no measure of current scientific vigor. When administration officials reiterated Dr. Keyworth's points at the research symposium, Dr. Bromley repeated that it is the trend toward declining research support, not its current dollar value, that causes concern. Science historian Derek deSolla Price of Yale University stood up in the audience to emphazise this, adding that the present situation is ''disastrous.''

Statements of the Reagan administration's commitment to basic scientific research as an element of national strength are also greeted with skepticism. Scientists find this hard to reconcile with the administration's position that the US cannot excel in all such research and that priorities must be set. They see these priorities stated in terms of research needed for military and industrial purposes while a field wide open for major new discoveries, such as planetary exploration, is being virtually abandoned.

Even some federal officials speaking at the research symposium had trouble hiding their concern. After explaining how the new priorities were being fitted into a healthy research program at his agency, one such official reiterated the administration's commitment to basic research. But he added, perhaps in jest, that he had to say that so ''I can keep my job tomorrow.''

Dr. Keyworth and other officials also recognized the widespread concern at universities over cuts in fellowship support for graduate students and cuts in funds to replace outmoded research and teaching equipment. Dr. Keyworth and George Millburn of the Department of Defense (DOD) explained that the administration recognizes the need for strong university research and teaching in science and engineering. The DOD especially will be offering more fellowships and money for university equipment. Dr. Millburn noted that relations between the DOD and academia have been strained since the Vietnam war. He called on universities to take a ''realistic view'' of national defense and fulfill their responsibility to supply trained manpower and consultants for the DOD.

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