THE big science news these days is the stop-and-go funding votes for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). Here one day, gone the next, back another. While the fate of the multi-billion dollar SSC is the stuff of headlines, a similar story is playing out on the back pages concerning the funding for other scientific projects.
In February President Bush proposed significant increases for scientific research. Most prominent was the 18 percent increase for research at the National Science Foundation (NSF). By mid-summer these large increases had been slashed by House subcommittees with the recommendations that the NSF research budget remain flat in nominal terms (a real decline) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgets increase by at most 4 percent, a full percentage point lower than the increase in the price index of
biomedical research. When the Senate Appropriations Committee got its turn in September, the NIH budget recommendation was virtually the same.
On the surface, such funding cuts are understandable. The United States economy is in the doldrums: the budget deficit continues to grow; and the Budget Enforcement Act sets strict limits on discretionary spending.
But this stop-and-go policy is not new. The US has had a history of erratic funding for scientific research: big increase in certain years (sometimes as high as 20 percent) followed by real cuts or modest increases.
Uncertainty is what makes a roller coaster ride at an amusement park exciting. But uncertainty in funding weakens the US scientific enterprise. It encourages scientists to pursue projects that are safe and to ignore risky projects with potentially higher payoffs. It encourages scientists to choose projects that produce results quickly in case funding doesn't hold up in the future. Furthermore, funding uncertainty discourages talented people from entering science, since more secure (and often more financi ally rewarding) occupations exist elsewhere.
The consequences to the nation are serious. Scientific research affects our standard of living and our competitive position in the world. Moreover, because the lag between basic research and economic impact is long - estimated to be from 10 to 30 years - the effects of erratic scientific funding continue to be felt for many years.
Stop-and-go funding is not the only way to create a scientific roller coaster. Politicizing research expenditures (earmarking dollars for a legislator's district) also generates uncertainty. When the NASA bill was reported out of committee last fall it contained $100 million in pork projects that were never requested by the agency: $22.5 million for a National Technology Transfer Center in Morgantown, W. Va., for instance; or $7.5 million in continued funding for a Wheeling, W. Va., Jesuit College; or $2 0 million for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research in Baltimore.
All were jolts to the research agenda of NASA, since the $100 million comes out of the Agency's budget.
This spring Congress discovered yet another way to increase the uncertainty that accompanies scientific funding. For the first time ever, the Senate proposed killing 34 research projects scheduled to be funded by NSF and NIH, projects that had already been approved by the scientific peer review process.
Although the House refused to go along with the Senate, in the final bill an equivalent sum of money was withheld from the agencies and the bill was accompanied by a report providing "guidance" to NSF. Such action threatens to take decisionmaking at the micro level away from experts and place it in the political arena.
The economic future of the United States depends to a large extent on the recognition that we as a nation must take the long view. In science this means that we must commit to long-term sustained real growth in federal funding of 4 to 5 percent. We must put an end to the roller coaster pattern of stop-and-go funding. The economic growth of our country is at stake.