UNITED STATES policy to promote basic science seems to be in conflict with itself. The Bush administration wants to spend more money for research and development - including basic science. This implies that it wants more talented young people to pursue scientific careers. Yet the funding for individual researchers - as opposed to teams of scientists on large projects - has become too skimpy to support all the workers who seek money for worthwhile research.
This has created a situation where university students who would like to take up science professionally can't be sure what career opportunities await them. That sort of discouragement could lead to a serious shortage of at least some kinds of scientists in the not too distant future.
Consider AIDS research. There is still much to learn about the AIDS viruses. So it remains largely a field for basic scientific study, which is carried out mainly by individual scientists and their associates including graduate students. AIDS research has top priority today. But the specialists who do it were there when needed because of strong support for small-scale, individualistic science in the 1960s and '70s. Will other specialists be available in future emergencies if such support now is neglected?
The National Institutes of Health is the main supporter of basic biomedical scientists. It is unable to fund most of the worthwhile grant applications it receives. Some of the institutes can fund only one application in four. Moreover, last fall the agency as a whole began reducing the number of grants even further in order to put money into the remaining awards.
Reviewing this situation, the Scientist - a weekly newspaper for professional scientists - noted, as an example, that Joe Coulter of the University of Iowa should benefit from the new policy. His grants had been cut 10 percent in each of the past two years. That should stop now. But the Scientist went on to quote Dr. Coulter's concern for the future: ``Right now, we can get by with some belt tightening and fewer new grants. But what about 10 years down the road? If doing medical science becomes sufficiently unattractive to draw in new talent, the next time an AIDS epidemic comes along there may not be anybody in the lab to do the work.''
Many other fields of basic science are in the same situation. President Bush is asking for a 14 percent increase in the budget of the National Science Foundation. Some 60 percent of that $2.15 billion budget would fund individual research projects and their facilities. Yet the foundation turns down many good proposals also.
It, too, is talking about giving fewer awards and using any budget increase to put more money into grants it does fund. Foundation director Erich Block points out that the average grant has lost ground to inflation. He would like to raise it to $110,000 or $120,000 from its present $75,000 level.
Somehow, the need to nurture the scientists who do the research eludes the budget process. Much of the new money the administration wants is for big-ticket items such as NASA's space station or the Department of Energy's Gippertron particle accelerator. Even the Congressional Budget Office, in recommending cuts, suggests that the National Institutes of Health could fund fewer grants or trim another 10 percent off its awards.
Science is something people do. If the federal government truly wants to strengthen basic science, it should adequately support individual scientists themselves. A Tuesday column