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Science Policy: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

RATIONAL thinking about one of our most rational endeavors is in short supply. Without planning and commitment, the United States will cease to be a world leader in science and technology. Yet reasoning about science policy has become dangerously confused. A pernicious assumption underlying many policy discussions - not only about science - is that it's time for the US to abdicate the privileges and responsibilities of a wealthy and enlightened nation. Debate focuses on what we feel we cannot do, not on what we can do - if we have the wit, the will, and the vision. To anyone concerned about the course this country is setting, such pessimistic resignation is unacceptable.

In the science-policy arena, this failure of national confidence takes the form of a zero-sum mentality. Elders of the scientific establishment maunder about, wringing their hands and offering learned counsel about how to decide how to discuss how to share the shrinking pie. This willingness to accept lowered aspirations is nothing less than a corrosive invitation to mediocrity.

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Debate over science priorities has also been sent off the tracks by bogus issues. Worth is confused with size. For some, ``big'' is bad and ``small'' is beautiful; for others, big is the only way to think. What counts is not size or style but substance: whether an enterprise is likely to settle important questions or to open promising new frontiers, whether it is technologically feasible, and whether it will engage the energies and fire the passions of the best people in the field.

The crucial distinction between basic and applied research has become blurred. Failing to differentiate them is as fundamental a mistake as confusing physics with biology; it encourages the belief that they are interchangeable. Since last spring, when the president of the National Academy of Sciences blessed the concept, discussion about setting priorities for scientific research has become a national pastime. The projects that editorial pundits frequently place atop the list - fighting the AIDS epidemic, improving our capability to launch satellites, developing warm-temperature superconductors - all are primarily applications of existing knowledge. We can address these challenges effectively only with the discoveries, insights, and tools that have rewarded our past investments in basic science. Public health, defense, and commerce cannot be advanced without research directed toward the goal of understanding nature.

Yet, in some circles basic research is considered an extravagance. These hard times, proponents of this view say, call for research directed toward applications that will redress our balance of trade. Such thinking takes no notice of the synergy between basic science and applications.

It is myopic when militant technologists, persuaded that fundamental discovery is merely a spinoff of technological innovation, complain that basic researchers are wasting their own time and the taxpayers' money. It is equally myopic when elitist academics, convinced of the purity of their research, argue that technology is the laggard follower of fundamental discovery. In truth, basic research and new technology nourish each other, and both are essential to the scientific enterprise. To advocate throttling government-sponsored basic research until the nation has developed its next product line is to promote a false economy.

Those who view basic science as a luxury see no cost in postponing new initiatives or in keeping support of ongoing work below needed levels. Science requires continuity of effort. Without conditions that encourage exceptional achievement, teams disperse, concentration fades, and the chain of students and mature researchers is broken. If the Olympic Games were held once in 30 years, how many young athletes would be deprived of the inspiration to excel, and how much lower would be the level of athletic accomplishment?

Ultimately, these are issues not just of science policy, or economic policy, but of national spirit. If America can no longer dare to lead the world in the quest for new knowledge, then the golden age of scientific exploration, invention, and discovery will be supplanted by an era whose emblem is a baser metal. It is time to stop quibbling about which superb science we should pursue. Let us instead ask how we can do what needs to be done.

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