Science Under the Budget Knife


Washington -- Congress and the president have moved swiftly to impose needed fiscal discipline on the federal government. Few sectors of our society will be exempt from the pain of this retrenchment. Among the scientific community, I have yet to encounter anyone who is reluctant to share with fellow citizens the burden of fiscal restraint in pursuit of a balanced budget.

Our distress over current proposals for massive reductions in government support for research stems not from any self-serving sense of injustice. Rather, our fear is for the erosive impact that these cuts would have on America's ability to maintain its economic leadership in a hotly competitive global marketplace -- and for the potentially devastating effect they would have on the health and lifestyle of all Americans.

The projections for funding scientific and technological research are alarming. An analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that under the recently passed congressional budget resolution, annual appropriations for funding of civilian research and development will plunge from about $34 billion a year to $25 billion by the year 2002, a startling 33 percent drop in inflation-adjusted dollars. Nearly half of the long-term proposed cuts would occur in the coming fiscal year alone.

Without strong continued federal support for scientific and technological research, much interest-driven experimentation -- the wellspring of applications vitally important to the nation's economy, security and quality of life -- will founder. The loss of grant money resulting from the proposed budget cuts would abruptly curtail crucial studies in fields ranging from microbiology and oceanography to astronomy and neurology. And the impacts would have devastating long-term ramifications for the institutional foundation of research in this country.

Leaders of more than 80 scientific and engineering societies met recently to discuss this climate of reduced federal support for scientific research. How is it, many wondered, that our leaders can so readily consider such draconian cutbacks for an enterprise that is vital to the economic life of America and the health and well-being of all citizens? To preserve our future, scientists and engineers can no longer remain complacent about federal support for scientific research. Neither can the American public.

Scientists and engineers must publicly champion the very significant role that research -- however remote some of it may appear -- plays in everyone's daily life. Teachers, parents and policy makers too must convey the contributions of science to the public, which lacks an awareness of its direct benefits.

The young man pumping gas in Louisiana is unaware that his speedy recovery from a serious operation was possible thanks to work done a decade ago by unacclaimed investigators in a faraway university research center. The woman pushing her grocery cart down the aisle of a Seattle supermarket makes no connection between the array of attractive, nourishing fruits and vegetables on display and the rigorous agricultural research that made them that way.

Neither person is aware that any hope we have for development of an AIDS vaccine lies in the esoteric research being carried out today throughout the United States on cell processes and immune systems.

For decades, America has been a world leader in biomedical and technological achievement. Yet most of the discoveries that have driven that success would never have been made without federal support for research whose ultimate benefits could not have been foreseen at the time.

Research on fireflies that was done in the 1950s, for example, helped scientists 40 years later to develop a new diagnostic test for highly contagious strains of tuberculosis. The 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA -- a discovery driven by human curiosity -- was key in the long and successful quest to identify genes that contribute to diseases and conditions such as breast cancer and obesity. Basic discoveries in physics brought us first the X-ray, and now an improved medical diagnostic tool -- magnetic resonance imaging -- that has made invaluable contributions toward saving lives.

Fundamental research is a spawning ground for profitable products and technology, and for jobs -- not just in labs. Charles Vest, the president of the Massachusetts Institute Technology, recently cited a Bank of Boston study revealing that MIT %J graduates and faculty alone had, over time, founded more than 600 companies in Massachusetts. These companies, with annual sales of $40 billion, have created jobs for more than 300,000 men and women in that state.

Certainly the alarm that science and engineers feel about the massive reductions in federal support for research is due in part to the impact many of us would feel as we watched our research project shrink or disappear altogether. But our larger fear is for the welfare of the nation.

If the budget were to pass in its current form, a downward spiral would be set in motion, putting at risk virtually every aspect of fundamental investigation in the life and physical sciences, engineering and mathematics. The intent is directed at fiscal responsibility, but the results would in fact have the opposite effect. Long-term consequences would prove such cuts to be foolhardy, counterproductive and a tragic disservice to the American people.

Rita R. Colwell is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

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