Science / Medicine : ANALYSIS : U.S. May Pay Dearly for Cutting Back on Fuel Research

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington-based newsletter

Count the 1980s as the squandered decade for energy research aimed at reducing America's risky dependence on foreign oil. And credit the loss to the Reagan Administration, which gutted the government's energy research programs--and redeployed much of the savings to nuclear weapons research.

After a decade of plentiful petroleum, with real prices actually lower than they were 15 years ago, the zip is long gone from America's determination to use its scientific smarts for protection against oil disruptions. This is evident in the hard-pressed, financially shortsighted auto industry, which has persistently resisted higher fuel economy standards.

In fact, the current average performance has declined from 28.6 miles per gallon in 1988 to 27.8 in the current model year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Bush Administration has recognized the need for a comeback. The pace could be quickened. But one can only despair over the prospects of American staying power beyond the current round of Middle East turmoil.

The evisceration of the government's energy research programs was one of the proudest achievements of the Reagan Administration, which took the cheery view that the marketplace is the infallible governor of energy production, use and innovations.

Upon taking office, Reagan sought to reverse the big energy research buildup started by Richard Nixon in response to the 1973 oil shortage and accelerated by Jimmy Carter as his domestic centerpiece. They aimed to mobilize science to squeeze more power from common fuels and guide the transition to new ones. In the hierarchy of tough research problems, these rank high and require a lot of time and money.

When Congress thwarted Reagan's pledge to abolish the Department of Energy, he responded with budget cuts that severely reduced or even eliminated the department's various civilian energy-research programs. Congress again balked and kept them alive, but for energy research, it was the beginning of a decade of drought that has only partially eased.

The science and engineering grapevine naturally reverberates with news of hot and cold professional opportunities--with the scale invariably linked to the flow of federal money. There's still relatively little money, and therefore no stampede to energy research.

In 1980, the year before Reagan took office, the Department of Energy was budgeted for $560 million for solar energy research and development, in its own laboratories and in universities and industry. When Reagan left office, the solar program was down to $90 million--thanks only to Congress preventing a complete wipeout.

Among the items rescued from elimination was the Solar Energy Research Institute, the main federal laboratory for research in that field. The Bush budget for next year calls for a 30% increase in solar research, awesome by Gramm-Rudman standards, but still far below pre-Reagan levels.

Funds for coal research dropped from $755 million to $275 million during the Reagan years; conservation research from $295 million to $190 million, and research on non-solar renewable energies from $273 million to $48 million.

Nuclear energy received many heartfelt endorsements from the Reagan Administration, which tended toward adoration of big high-tech projects. But here, too, the money record is dismal, with federal research dropping from $1.1 billion in 1980 to $340 million last year.

European and Japanese manufacturers, in well-financed anticipation of the next oil shortage, have demonstrated conventional-style, gasoline-powered cars that get around 100 miles per gallon. It's a well-kept secret if any American manufacturer can match that.

Japanese auto manufacturers have also concentrated on packing six cylinders' worth of power into economical and smooth-running four-cylinder engines, thus positioning themselves for what may well be a new era of high-priced fuel.

The Reagan-era contention that the marketplace is best for setting research priorities fails to account for the fiscal timidity of many American industries, particularly in financing long-term research.

Governments can provide that endurance. That was the purpose of the energy-research programs that the Reagan Administration trampled to near-oblivion.

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