Some two-thirds of US basic scientific research is carried out in the universities. This is the wellspring of the country's new knowledge, the source of its scientific and technological strength. Now that spring is threatening to run much more slowly, if not literally to run dry.
Across the United States, university scientists and administrators express alarm at this trend. They see it as due to misplaced priorities in federal funding and to lack of public understanding of the key role of university research.
Speaking at the recent 50th anniversary symposium of the Harvard Biological Laboratories, Stanford University president Donald Kennedy explained why the funding cuts hit basic research especially hard.
He noted that, since 1967, the federal nondefense research budget has shrunk by about 37 percent, with half the reduction coming in the past two years. Yet for research funded by industry and by the Department of Defense, funding here is increasing sharply. This gives a deceptive impression that, overall, US scientific research is not in such bad shape. But since the bulk of basic research is carried out by universities and depends overwhelmingly on federal nondefense funds, the very foundation of US science is indeed threatened.
Henry Rosovsky, dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, carried this point further by explaining that it is the partnership between research, theorizing, and teaching that has given US university science world leadership. Universities will continue teaching and working out scientific theories, whatever happens to research funding. But these activities will grow stale if they are no longer intimately associated with the generation of new knowledge.
''What is at stake,'' Rosovsky said, ''is the future of experimental sciences in the universities and that unique combination of experimental and theoretical scientists under one roof . . . which has accounted for so much of the progress (of university science).''
It will take new federal support for university research to avert such a tragedy. Grants from industry can't make up the loss of federal funds. Kennedy pointed out that such grants underwrite only 3 to 4 percent of the total of university research budgets. To make up a 1 percent drop in federal support, industrial support would have to increase something like 25 percent. This seems unreasonable to expect, Kennedy said. He added that funds from private foundations and individuals can't bridge the gap either.
Thus, even in an era of large federal budget deficits, there is strong reason for continued support of university research. As Kennedy noted, this is a vital investment in ''the future intellectual capital of our society'' and thus a proper use of tax money.
Kennedy is right. Both Congress and the administration should reconsider their sense of priorities which subordinates funding of university research to what they consider current economic necessities. What they really are doing is undercutting US scientific strength in the future.