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Funding Basic Science

IN what may be a bout of political correctness, the National Academy of Sciences recommended this week that the federal government adopt a more centralized method of allocating its research and development money, including money for basic science.

The motive is laudable. When 43 percent of this country's R&D budget comes from taxpayers, the research community should do what it can to make the most efficient use of the money. And in the case of applied research, if ways can be found to help decisionmakers direct efforts toward developing technologies that will keep the United States economically competitive, all well and good. During the Reagan years, federal support for applied research shifted heavily to defense; adjusting that balance is appropr iate.

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But if adopted, the academy's proposal for funding basic science could ultimately lead to a triage system, harming an enterprise that even now continues to fuel the nation's economic success.

In the basic sciences, the panel recommends establishing a series of boards that would evaluate US standing in a range of disciplines. Criteria would include the number of students in a field compared with other countries, other nations' funding levels, and how often US scientists' work is cited in journals. These evaluations would be used to steer money to areas that the White House and Congress feel need reinforcement and away from disciplines that don't.

Currently, when Congress allots money to the National Science Foundation, for example, the foundation spreads the money fairly evenly among disciplines, then lets the peer-review process determine which research proposals get funded.

Despite its flaws, this approach stands a better chance of ensuring a balanced approach to basic science than does a set of steering committees. After all, when discussions about US competitiveness arise, the problems do not lie with basic science, but with more nuts-and-bolts issues of manufacturing technologies, marketing strategies, and even the vision to see that an invention or development has market potential.

Britain and Japan have tried to steer basic science to more directly serve economic goals. In both countries, basic science has suffered. The US, while meeting its economic needs, should not repeat their mistakes.