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Concern for US technology lag may spur R&D renaissance

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At a time when many American scientists decry cuts in federal funding, Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, says the country seems ripe for a scientific and technological renaissance.

He already sees this under way in industry, where research and development (R&D) support is expected to grow by 17 percent this year after a 16 percent gain in 1981.

Furthermore, he says that rapidly growing national concern over the technological lag and the decay of science and mathematics education in the United States could have the effect of a second Sputnik. As with the alarm aroused by that Soviet satellite 25 years ago, he explains, the present concern may well rekindle broad public support for a strong national program in scientific research and education.

With this in mind, Dr. Press is mounting a campaign to build assured long-term support for basic science into the federal budget. This would amount to an entitlement program for the sciences - something that has never been granted before. However, Press explained during a conversation in his academy office, this would be no welfare program for academics.

''A good fraction of the US gross national product is due to new knowledge,'' he noted. ''So,'' he added, ''it is not science for its own sake. There are very important national security matters involved,'' since that security depends partly on economic strength.

Press is recommending a five-point program including:

* A guaranteed minimum of stable funding through a basic research budget that would increase enough each year to cover inflation plus 2 percent real growth.

* Special additional support for certain projects that meet specific national needs or offer especially good payoffs. New research facilities would also be funded this way.

* Cooperation between scientists and government to raise research productivity by transferring funds from less productive institutions to more fruitful activity centers.

* A commitment from industry to an annual increase of 1 percent above inflation in its support of university R&D - an annual raise of about $50 million.

* A partnership between government, industry, and universities to develop a program of adequate support for graduate education in science and engineering.

Press, science adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, admits that he is asking for the moon. But he notes that this is no longer a metaphor for attempting the impossible.

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