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For Want of a Bunsen Burner ...

OF the $10 billion to $11 billion the federal government is budgeting for basic scientific research, colleges and universities in the United States will carry out some $8 billion to $9 billion of the work. But the physical wherewithal to do the job is crumbling away. Obsolescence and decay have overtaken campus laboratories. This threatens effective use of research dollars. Everyone concerned with such research talks about the problem. But little, so far, is being done to solve it.

Last year, Congress ordered the National Science Foundation (NSF) to set up an office to oversee facility upgrades and to prepare a modernization plan. It also authorized $191 million to start the plan rolling. NSF published the plan in July. But you won't find a penny of the authorization in the $2 billion NSF budget now under discussion in Congress. Neither the administration nor congressional appropriations committees are eager to put up any money to meet what they all say is an urgent need.

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That seems silly. If the need is so widely recognized, why the reluctance to meet it?

To begin with, that need is awesome. Various estimates converge on a total of $10 billion that would have to be doled out over many years. That looks like an invitation to build yet another ``entitlement'' into the federal budget - something both administration and congressional budgeteers want to avoid. They would rather keep facilities funding within the overall annual science-budget process.

This has brought out a conflict of interest within the academic research community. The major universities that skim the budget cream are not really hurting for facilities. They shy from any suggestion that might divert money from actual research. The second- and third-tier institutions suffer most. So we find the Association of American Universities (AAU), which represents major institutions, lobbying Congress not to fund facilities at the expense of the research budget. Yet the American Council on Education, of which AAU is a part, urges Congress to get on with the facilities program even if it means a little less research money.

Another sticky issue is federal agency turf. NSF has interpreted its mandate to mean upgrading facilities for the research it supports. That leaves the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds most biological and medical research, out in the cold. So NIH wants money for its constituents. Then there are science-funding agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and units within the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, and Energy.

With so many varied interests, no wonder it's hard to come up with a unified program. Congress is unlikely to do much about it for the fiscal year that begins in October. Meanwhile, the academic research infrastructure continues to rot. The various parties should sink their differences and work together to ensure that a modernization program does get under way in fiscal 1991.

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