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SCIENCE WATCH / LEE DYE

THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Cutbacks Imperil Foundation on Which Breakthroughs Rely

October 11, 1995|LEE DYE

Science can be excruciatingly dull.

For every brilliant biochemist who discovers a new miracle drug, dozens of workers go through the tedious process of collecting the mountains of data needed to prove the effectiveness of the drug.

The scientist who makes the discovery gets the glory, the fame, and in some cases the wealth that success brings. But it is the people you never hear about, the technicians and the graduate students and the computer programmers, who provide the foundation for that achievement.

In these troubling days for science, when budgets are being slashed in both the public and the private sectors, it is that foundation that is being eroded. The stellar achiever who can write a fetching proposal will still get funded, by and large. But the people in the trenches, those who provide the foundation for good science, are losing on every front.

That latter responsibility, providing the basic building blocks of science, has been chiefly the role of the federal government. It fell to the feds because no one else wanted to do it.

"It's boring," the director of a major research institution told me recently.

Universities don't want to do it because it doesn't fit in with their objectives.

"Nobody gets tenure or a Ph.D. doing long-term measurements," one scientist shouted from the audience during a symposium I attended on global climate change. As a result, much of the data we need to make intelligent decisions simply isn't there, and that will only get worse.

That was a hot topic during the meeting because the data available to scientists who are trying to determine whether the Earth is indeed getting warmer from the so-called greenhouse effect is woefully lacking.

No one is more aware of that than the scientists themselves, as evidenced by these random quotes from experts who were discussing the problem during the symposium:

* "I can't emphasize enough that we are going into this assuming we have answers that we don't have."

* "We don't have a long data record, and some of the record is very poor."

Or this blunt assessment:

* "We are in very serious trouble."

No names are used here, because these statements were made by scientists who were discussing the problem among themselves, and some of them did not know that a reporter was present. But any scientist working on such complex problems as global climate will tell you the same thing. We simply are not collecting the kind of data we need to make the right decisions.

Historically, that has been the role of federal agencies that are now being slashed. Only the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, has the mission and the resources to maintain records on subtle changes in climate around the world. It has never done an adequate job of maintaining a long-term data bank because its primary function was more immediate, to provide weather information for ships, aircraft, and storm centers.

But faced with a declining budget, it will do a worse job in the future, leaving giant gaps in such critical areas as changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level. Many scientists have warned that global warming will cause glaciers to melt, thus raising sea level and inundating huge areas of the coastline, but documenting that is very hard. Shorelines erode and rise and fall due to tectonic forces, and it is exceedingly difficult to determine whether an apparent rise in sea level is due to warming or other changes in the environment.

The inadequacy of the data weakens the findings in a wide range of scientific fields, but it is particularly troublesome for something as elusive as documenting long-term changes in global weather patterns.

The only way to lower the threat of global warming is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels that provide the carbon dioxide that is trapping heat in the lower atmosphere. But that will entail enormous sacrifices around the world, especially among emerging industrial nations that want only to have a lifestyle as rich as the one we have enjoyed all these years.

It will take very convincing evidence to win that war. We will need comprehensive data, and no one is likely to be collecting it. There is little chance that Congress will reverse itself and increase funding for agencies it is now gutting. Universities have neither the inclination nor the resources to do it themselves. And there isn't enough profit in it to appeal to the private sector.

So the high-profile projects will continue to get their funding; the folks in the trenches will starve.

That can have only one result. Juan Roederer, professor emeritus of geophysics at the University of Alaska, says the threat is very sobering.

"The danger is to choose a billion-dollar solution for just a million-dollar problem, and face economic disaster, or to select a million-dollar solution for a billion-dollar problem and face environmental disaster."

Lee Dye can be reached by e-mail at 72040.3515@compuserve.com.

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