Scientific Community Warily Looks at Incoming Congress : GOP may back research in the national interest but balk at other funding

Once the post-election bluster and posturing fade, the new Republican majority in Congress will have to come to grips with the harder reality of budget making and governing. History suggests that certain underlying national priorities and imperatives will ultimately blunt some of the rhetoric.

The federal research and development budget is a case in point. Even during the Reagan years, that budget grew by 26% after inflation, according to the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. To be sure, much of that was related to President Ronald Reagan's military buildup. But the trend continued under Reagan's Republican successor, George Bush, who shifted toward civilian needs after the Cold War. President Clinton has pushed still further toward non-military purposes, flirting with establishing an American industrial policy by supporting commercially exploitable research.

But the new Republican vow to cut federal spending has potentially profound implications for American science and technology. The $73 billion spent on research and development represents a sizable portion of the $500-billion discretionary part of the annual domestic budget that is not committed to entitlements.

The academic science community sheds no tears for at least one result of the November elections: the departure of Rep. John D. Dingell as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His hard-nosed probes of alleged waste and misdeeds by scientists, universities and national laboratories made the Michigan Democrat a bete noire of science.

The coming lineup of Republican chairs in key science committees is still unclear. But it appears that most of the key players are likely to be Republican moderates who understand that the federal government plays an essential role in supporting basic scientific and medical research that cannot be done by private industry. They include Reps. Jerry Lewis of California, John E. Porter of Illinois, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin and Sherwood Boehlert of New York and Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon.

These Republicans probably will help protect the budgets of such agencies as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and NASA, as well as the research budget of the Defense Department, which still pays for more than half of federal research and development. However, we are concerned that conservative "no-nothings" could still damage potentially lifesaving medical research. Clinton and the new Congress should resist efforts to renew puritanical and self-destructive curbs on research into sexual behavior or to reimpose restrictions on key medical research that uses fetal tissue.

Although Republicans are likely to protect key basic research in the national interest, they will surely demur when it comes to Clinton's efforts to use government to enhance American economic competitiveness by supporting certain emerging technologies. They have vowed to kill the new Advanced Technology Program, an arm of the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology. This program, the fastest-growing in government, gives companies grants to pursue research into "enabling" technologies related to the information superhighway, environmental monitoring and other civilian endeavors leading to new products.

To many Republicans, this amounts to "industrial policy," or undue interference in the free market. To the Clinton Administration, it is a modest answer to the heavy-handed role that European and Japanese governments take in advancing their strongest industries. Our view is that this program should be modified to give the government some return if the investment pans out for the companies getting the grants. But Congress should not let ideological blinders prevent the nation from giving this experiment enough time to see whether government can indeed help stimulate American economic prowess. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations alike bolstered defense industries in times of hot and cold wars. Why not the new peacetime technologies?

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