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The research gap

Of all the money spent by private industry or the US government, perhaps none is more vital to the long-range prosperity of the United States than ''R&D'' dollars -- investments in basic research and development. After years of neglect , American industry is now plowing more money into invention and product development than ever, an upswing that began in the late 1970s. At the same time , government funds for research in a broad range of scientific areas other than defense are being reduced. Perhaps most disturbing, there is as yet no firm strategy regarding basic research in the US.

Clearly, whether the US maintains its world economic leadership will in great measure be determined by the extent to which it stays abreast of the profound technological changes now transforming the industrial world. But to do this will require that business firms, major universities, national foundations, scientific laboratories, and the federal government itself set aside sufficient funds for new research. And this in turn is dependent on the degree to which the US develops an engineering and scientific community equal to the momentous challenges that will be faced in exploring the space-age technology of the future.

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Unfortunately, it is not yet certain that the US will meet the R&D challenge as well as it should, though there are some promising indications of addressing it. Over the course of the decade, spending on research and development is expected to total something on the order of $700 billion to $1 trillion, no paltry sum. Industry now accounts for close to half the total annual R&D budget, compared to one third back in the 1960s when government was the major contributor.

But a significant share of the industry budget will flow into defense-related research. Surely there must be no scrimping on appropriate research for defense. But military spending must not be allowed to become such an enormous drag on the civilian sector of the economy as to divert professional workers and scarce resources away from promising scientific inquiry in nondefense fields.

Many of the federal cutbacks are dismaying. That is especially the case for ''basic research'' as well as projects related to small businesses, which tend to generate most new jobs within the American workforce. Thus funds for nonnuclear energy programs, including solar power, space research, and conservation research, are being slashed. At the same time federally supported research in the social sciences is being even more pointedly reduced.

It is also cause for concern that the government is cutting back on its support for engineering and scientific education research projects. There is now , for example, a scarcity of engineers receiving doctoral degrees, and many college-level teaching positions are unfilled. By contrast, Japan, America's major competitor in the electronics, high-technology area, is devoting special attention to boosting its professional workforce of engineers. Moreover, the US has not kept up with the modernization of equipment and facilities in its engineering and research laboratories.

Most serious of all, however, is the fact that there is currently no effort underway in the US for coordinated planning involving R&D expenditures. That is not to say that all such funds should fit neatly into some sort of federal ''master plan.'' Such a centralized approach would garner little public support during a period of federal deregulation.

But at a time when budgets are lean, a modicum of government, industry, and university planning in the research area -- if only by reaching a broad consensus that certain forms of research need more focused support than others -- seems logical. Such an approach is taken to an extent by the Japanese. One need only think back to the 1950s and 1960s when America established its highly successful space program to realize that, when all parties to a scientific inquiry put their skills to a task, remarkable results can occur.