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Congress Generous Yet Cautious In Handing Out Research Funds

IN spite of the pressure to cut spending, scientific research has emerged a big winner in the United States fiscal 1991 budget. But there are caveats. Science budgets in federal agencies, generally, have received healthy boosts, even though these often are less than the administration originally requested. Congress has also made it clear, however, that it is impatient with vague or poorly designed programs.

There are deep cuts in the centerpiece of the administration's manned spaceflight strategy - the space station Freedom and the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) to establish lunar bases and explore Mars.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) overall budget of $13.9 billion is up $1.6 billion over last year.

But these funds include almost none of the $300 million requested for SEI, which many in Congress consider ill-defined and postponable. Also, the $1.9 billion given the space station is $551 million less than NASA wanted. Even this short funding comes with an order to NASA to restudy the space station design and report back within 90 days. This will spur on the administration's review committee that already is reexamining NASA's goals. Biomed favored

The National Institutes of Health, which fund biomedical research, are the most favored recipients. Their $7.987 billion budget is a $710 million increase over fiscal 1990 and is more than the $7.623 billion the administration wanted.

Yet the controversial program to decipher the human genetic code has only about $88 million. The administration wanted $108 million.

The National Science Foundation is an another big winner. At $2.316 billion, its funding is just a shade less than the $2.383 billion it requested. Nevertheless, Congress told the foundation to have the National Academy of Sciences review how the agency parcels out its money. Many senators and congressmen are uneasy with the ``merit review'' process in which scientists examine the research proposals of colleagues in their respective fields. Supercollider exception

One exception to this skeptical treatment of controversial programs is the superconducting supercollider (SSC) particle accelerator to be built in Texas. Congress treated its funding gently in spite of serious cost uncertainties.

Originally pegged at $4.4 billion, cost estimates now range from $7.8 billion to $11.7 billion. The Department of Energy, which was supposed to give a definitive figure last August, has yet to release its current best-cost forecast.

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Congress gave the SSC $75 million less than the requested $318 million. But this is not the serious funding blow it might seem.

The Texas National Research Laboratory Corporation will release $60 million of the $1 billion in promised state money for the project. In addition, the project can use $25 million of 1990 construction funds that Congress had frozen earlier.

As project director Roy Schwitters notes, the budget cut will have no impact, from his viewpoint.

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