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A New Framework for Science Funding : National Academy panel calls for changes that will work in hard fiscal times

December 17, 1995

Of all the myriad functions of the federal government, none has been more successful in recent decades than the supporting of basic science and technology. The proof lies in fine scientific institutions from Massachusetts to California and this country's sweep of Nobel prizes in science almost every year. Through Democratic and Republican regimes, liberal and conservative, the science budget has survived political wars and cutbacks.

Indeed, the scientific and medical communities became so used to federal largess that they whined about budgets even during the heyday of the Cold War, when Washington threw money at almost any scientist literate enough to write a grant proposal. Having shouted wolf so often, their cries fall on deaf ears in Washington in this era of tight money. Grant seekers sometimes are incensed if they are turned down, as though the taxpayers were obliged to support them all.

Part of the problem is the way Washington calculates the research and development budget. Included is not just basic research but all manner of spending on weapons development and subventions to private companies for risky product development. Thus cuts proposed last summer by the new Republican Congress led to the patently erroneous claim by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and about 80 other scientific organizations that science support would drop by one-third by the year 2002.

The Republican budgeteers claim they want to eliminate only federal support for private industry. Part of the problem is that there is no good definition of the federal science budget. In an effort to bring some rationality to the process, a panel of science mandarins convened by the National Academy of Sciences recently offered a new framework. It said that the customary calculation that the federal government spends about $70 billion a year on research and development is misplaced. The true figure for backing of work that produces basic knowledge and fundamental innovation is closer to $35 billion or $40 billion, it said.

The report proposed a new federal science and technology budget that, in the words of Frank Press, the chairman of the panel, would be "the core of a new budgeting process that should encourage selection reductions and increases within and across agencies to reflect changing missions and performance evaluations." It urged higher priority for work done at universities than in federal or industrial laboratories.

Because the report was commissioned by a Democratic Congress last year and received a cool reception by the White House, it is unlikely to make huge ripples in Washington soon. But it provides a useful starting point for bringing coherence to a system that worked fine when budgets kept growing relentlessly but that threatens to break down in more austere times.

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