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1990 Science Budget May Be Pie in the Sky. Analysts say big projects may be at risk

FOR United States scientists, President Bush's budget for 1990 contains what many analysts consider a potentially disappointing element of fantasy. It disproportionately favors research and development. This leaves scientific endeavors disproportionately vulnerable to budget cuts and compromises. Big-ticket items such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) space station and the Department of Energy's $6 billion particle accelerator are especially at risk.

That's the warning experts gave US scientists during the recent annual colloquium on science and technology policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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The 1990 budget calls for $66.6 billion in research and development (R&D), with defense getting $43 billion and basic science $11.2 billion of that total. The balance of R&D money represents development rather than basic research. The 1990 request represents a 7.4 percent rise from $62 billion in fiscal 1989, or a 3.7 percent boost when adjusted for inflation. The total federal budget of $1,151.8 billion is up only 1.3 percent from the 1989 level of $1,137 billion, which amounts to a 2.4 percent decrease when adjusted for inflation.

Some speakers tried to dampen what they consider unrealistic expectations for science that this budget request may encourage.

Robert Grady, of the natural resources, energy, and science department in the Office of Management and Budget, noted that the budget invests heavily in NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Their planned growth, as required by authorized activities, depends on getting requested raises of 22 percent (NASA) and 14 percent (NSF), he said. Yet, he added, these large increases stand out as some of the most tempting targets for budget cutters.

Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office, reinforced that point. He explained that, while congressional budget authorization committees may authorize dreams that the administration proposes, the appropriations committees that put up the money have to deal with realities. This results in a situation where there is virtually no money for new projects, while projects already authorized are not fully funded.

For example, the $2.149 billion NSF request is $263 million (14 percent) more than the agency's present budget. It's in line with the full authorization Congress enacted last October to double the foundation's budget in five years. However, while the 19.3 percent rise requested for 1989 was also in line with that objective, the actual appropriation cut it to 9.8 percent.

Mr. Reischauer and others noted that NASA's requested $13.274 billion 1990 budget contains even more wishful thinking. Its budget as a whole would rise 22 percent. But the $2,050.2 billion for the space station Freedom is a 128 percent boost from the current $900 billion. This is in line with the planned rise in spending to orbit the station in the late 1990s. Martin Kress, staff member of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, acknowledged that on paper, the current civil space program requires sustained funding of that kind. Yet, he added, ``Congress hasn't been able to provide that.''

He cited two major problems. First, he explained that the administration tries to trade growth in space funding for cuts in domestic social programs. Congress, he said, isn't going to do that. So every budget debate starts with this built-in conflict.

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Second, Mr. Kress noted that little money is provided for new projects while important program elements are left out of the budget. For example, he said Congress is unlikely to let NASA orbit the space station without the $2 billion astronaut rescue vehicle now under design. Yet this isn't in the budget. Also, Congress is very interested in NASA's proposed Mission to Planet Earth - a study of the environment from space. This, too, is not in the budget. What's true of NASA and NSF is also true of other areas of science funding. The administration may want to favor scientific research. But the ability of either the administration or Congress to come through on budget promises is uncertain.


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