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Outlook for science funding is hazy. Uncertainty fuels debate over proportion spent on defense

Today in 200 cities across the United States, schoolchildren will launch 175,000 weather-tracking balloons to mark the beginning of the second annual National Science Week. The observance comes at a time of unprecedented federal support for scientific research, but also of a debate over the nature of the projects receiving money, especially in an era of tightening budgets.

``Overall [the] research-and-development level seems to be remarkably healthy,'' said David A. Hamburg, chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in testimony before a congressional committee soon after President Reagan released his fiscal 1987 budget.

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On further reflection, however, the AAAS has taken a less sanguine view -- primarily as a result of likely budget cuts resulting from the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law.

``The impact and damage of . . . cuts will be greater than now generally realized. Reductions will mean less research, less development, less funding at universities, and fewer jobs,'' according to an AAAS report issued after Dr. Hamburg's testimony.

Despite an obvious preoccupation with reducing federal spending, the Reagan administration insists it has gone out of its way to spare R&D.

``Funding for basic research over the past five years has increased in excess of 30 percent in real terms, or more than 50 percent in current dollars. And that is very deliberate policy,'' says John P. McTague, President Reagan's acting science adviser.

``The President continues his strong support for science because of its role in generating the base for our future econonic prosperity and national security. [The budget] the President submitted this year met the Gramm-Rudman target, increased national security, and increased investment in basic science and engineering. That is about the only thing that went up,'' Dr. McTague says.

Still, there is controversy over how federal R&D money is allocated. Much of it relates to defense. ``Since 1980, this element has risen from about 50 percent . . . to over 73 percent in the 1987 budget request, and may well be on a rising trend,'' Hamburg testified before the House Science and Technology Committee.

The administration maintains that the high proportion of defense-related funding is skewed by a necessary emphasis on evaluating and testing weapons systems. When this nonresearch-related spending is removed, they claim the numbers show more balance.

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In the President's budget request, resources for agriculture, energy, and environmental R&D have leveled off, and reduced support is given to activities in the Departments of Interior, Transportation, and Commerce and at the National Institutes of Health.

Senate and House versions of the budget have already pared down defense-related funding and moved more money back into nondefense R&D. At this point in the budget process the figures represent broad targets. Detailed allocations won't come until the various congressional subcommittees determine funding levels for programs under their jurisdiction.

According to an administration budget analyst, the ``going-in assumption was a freeze at 1986 levels'' of some $8 billion. ``Anything above that is a victory for basic science,'' he says.

The Senate figure for basic science is $9.3 billion, and the House figure is $8.5 billion. ``In the end, science will not do too badly, but we will not know for some time how it will play out,'' the budget official notes.

The controversy on the science budget does not end on defense vs. nondefense spending. In nondefense research, the administration is clearly moving away from the development side of R&D. The distinction comes in the difference between basic and applied research. Basic research has no specific goal other than to advance knowledge in a particular field. Applied research has a goal -- to develop a new vaccine or a new computer chip, for example.

McTague emphasizes that in the administration's science policy, ``the most effective federal role is not to attempt to drive specific commercial technologies, but to support forefront basic research, which will have high payoffs not foreseeable at the time of funding.''

Strong support is also given to multidisciplinary R&D efforts and person-to-person university/industry cooperative research endeavors. There is some concern in the academic community over R&D relationships with industry, but White House spokesmen say such arrangements can benefit both partners without compromising the ``objective'' academic quest for knowledge.