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Don't hobble US scientific research

United States scientific research spending should rise by 7 percent next year. This latest - and welcome - estimate by the National Science Foundation reflects the Reagan administration's determination to ensure a strong basis for US technological strength. But we also wonder if the strings now attached to government funds may not tie the hands of researchers who are being encouraged to work toward this goal.

For one thing, the administration is aggressively targeting its support to fields where it can foresee some payoff. It is doing this even for basic science. Presidential science adviser George Keyworth says that, while researchers may pursue basic knowledge, they ''must be better attuned to the opportunities of the industrial world.'' This risks encouraging what is currently fashionable at the expense of off-beat work that might be truly creative.

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The administration also continues to try to restrict the channels of normal free scientific communication in what is likely to be a self-defeating effort to keep US know-how at home. This so threatens the research and teaching process that Frank Press, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, has felt obliged to warn that ''standards and laws preventing open communication would be counterproductive and harmful.''

It indeed is foolish to try to pursue a policy of secrecy in basic science and engineering while simultaneously trying to boost their productivity. The folly is underscored by the fact that the administration also is eager to encourage education of more engineers and scientists. Both research and teaching depend upon free communication among workers and between professors and their students. This is why US scientific leaders, including the president of the National Academy of Sciences, are virtually unanimous in opposing the restrictions on freely communicating the results of nonmilitary research and discussing its problems.

Roland W. Schmitt, vice president of the General Electric Company, caught the essence of this issue by noting that technological research in the Soviet Union is seriously hampered by ''the oppressive bureaucratic ambiance that constantly surrounds the Soviet technologist.'' He asks, ''Do we now want to encumber our system in the same way?'' It should be obvious that the answer is ''no.''

The administration correctly perceives that the United States must maintain a strong foundation of fundamental scientific and engineering research if it is to compete in today's world. But the administration should also realize that this foundation, which depends on free communication and on support for wide-ranging creativity, cannot be maintained if basic science is to be fettered by constraints that are more appropriate for the development of weapons or of proprietary products ''attuned to the opportunities of the industrial world.''

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