Washington. -- The budget bellyaching coming out of the research establishment obscures the serious matter of whether science will be set back by the money reductions that appear to be inevitable on Capitol Hill.
The short answer is that more would be preferable for getting things done. But science is tough, resilient and bountifully supported. It can get along on less if the money is wisely spent -- which it often isn't -- and if inadvertent damage isn't inflicted by blundering legislators.
The chieftains of science are forecasting woeful consequences if the Republicans go ahead with plans to reduce spending for research and development by about a third over the next seven years.
Anxiety inflames the scientists' insecurities, leading to flights of rhetorical extravagance that would not be tolerated in purely scientific matters. Thomas E. Everhart, president of the California Institute of Technology, recently declared that billions taken from science will cost "trillions of dollars that could be saved by developing new medical treatments, new energy sources and new methods of cleaning up environmental waste." He added, "Without first-class science, we can look forward only to a second-class economy and a second-class standard of living."
The reality of science on Capitol Hill is that the budget ax has been wielded with more sophistication than is generally acknowledged. The long-term plans for spending cuts in science do warrant fright, if they are carried out. So far, though, basic science has eluded the ax.
The Republican rationale for financing basic science is that it's indispensable for industry, health and national security. Government must pay the bills, the thinking goes, since it's difficult for private sponsors to reap a payoff from advances in fundamental knowledge. Thus basic research, mainly a university-based activity, is to rise by 1.6 percent for the coming fiscal year. Most other civilian programs face serious cuts.
While medical researchers scream about reductions -- maybe because they scream -- the House has voted a 5.7 percent increase for the National Institutes of Health.
At the main source of money for physics research, the Department of Energy, basic science would go up by over 6 percent. The House was also reasonably gentle with the National Science Foundation, a mainstay of academic research, reducing next year's funding for scientific activities by 2.3 percent.
Why, then, the griping? The answer is that the federal research enterprise is roughly divided between basic science and activities directed toward hardware development and commercial applications. It's in development and applications that Republican free-market ideology is on a money-saving rampage -- with some exceptions for pet projects of influential legislators.
In line with such politics, the House has voted to abolish several big programs warmly favored by the Clinton administration for subsidizing research conducted by industrial firms. If matched by the Senate, that would spell the end of the Advanced Technology Program in the National Institute of Standards and Technology and similar programs in the Pentagon and NASA -- with total annual funding of over $1 billion.
What's curious about these programs is that after several years of heavy spending, reports of success are pretty sparse. The explanation of Clinton officials is that it's too early too tell -- and perhaps that's correct. But when money is so tight, and important fields of basic science complain that they are parched for support, puzzlement is warranted over the fast-growing and heavy government expenditures in areas of interest to industry.
Oddly, the recipients of the federal research subsidies include corporations that are among the world's heaviest spenders on research. Clinton officials insist the subsidies are needed because industry is short-sighted about the value of long-term research. But industry has done little lobbying to save the programs.
The doomsters in the science establishment regularly warn about other countries overtaking the U.S. Complacency can be dangerous, but so can fantasy. On the international scale, the U.S. is not skimping on research and development. In an assessment of 1992 data that is still valid today, the National Science Foundation recently reported: "The United States spends more money on R&D; activities than any other country; in fact, it spends more than Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy combined."
The trouble is we waste a lot of it on high-tech nonsense in defense, space and industrial subsidies. Redeployed to real science, the budget could easily fulfill the ambitions of the research establishment's gloomiest gripers.
Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.