For Science, 1997 Shapes Up as the Year of the Tight Belt

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." So said Carl Sagan, the science visionary who died this month. Such claims abounded in 1996, particularly the asserted discovery of past life on Mars and the finding of a drug that reduces the AIDS virus to "undetectable" levels in the body. For these claims to be proven, however, the rush of discovery that swept science in 1996 will have to be sustained through 1997. This would be no mean feat, given the sharp research and development budget cuts that President Clinton is expected to recommend to Congress early next year.

Some of the challenges that await science in 1997:

* SPACE: In 1996, the spaceship Galileo, swirling around Jupiter and its moons, beamed back more scientifically useful data than any preceding mission. Its findings--from one moon's volcanoes spewing gas 60 miles high to another's evidence of geysers that hold the potential for harboring life--surely provided fodder for the science fiction writers, but will they do anything to advance science fact? The answer is yes. Already, for instance, information about Jupiter's clouds is helping unveil mysteries about convection, a process wherein heat distributes water over planets like Earth.

But despite the cheerleading of NASA, it's not clear that all of 1996's space missions will result in revolutionary discoveries. The Mars Pathfinder, for instance, rocketed off to the Red Planet in November in search of life. But the Pathfinder's Tonka-toy-sized rover will be unable to bore deep beneath the Martian soil where evidence of life could be lurking.

It's more likely to find rocks like the Martian meteorite, a scientific sensation of 1996, which scientists from NASA and later Britain said showed four distinct signs of life. Critics immediately ridiculed the claim, saying that each of the four signs could have been created by inorganic processes. These critics failed to acknowledge that the NASA and British scientists based their claim not on the signs alone but on other factors as well. Even so, the notion that the rock once harbored life will remain merely a claim unless the scientists manage in the coming year to find "smoking guns" like signs of amino acids and cell walls within its structure.

* AIDS: The most dramatic medical breakthrough of 1996 was the introduction of a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors. But while the new drugs, in combination with older ones, can indeed render the virus all but undetectable, it's unlikely that they can reach such areas as the brain, where the virus may hide. Most troubling is the annual cost of the new drug regimen, $20,000 per patient. That puts it beyond reach of almost all of the 14 million people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa and the 4.8 million in South and Southeast Asia, along with many of the 780,000 in the United States. Until costs are reduced, international health agencies should continue to focus on advancing public education on safeguards in sex. Such education, according to epidemiologists, led to a dramatic decline in new infections in Thailand in 1995.

* THE POLITICS OF SCIENCE: Throughout the presidential campaign, Bill Clinton cited scientific breakthroughs that occurred during his administration as evidence that he was the best man to cross that "bridge to the 21st century." The president, however, has been more supportive of science in rhetoric than in deed. During the 1990s, federal funding for research and development has declined by at least 3*, and science researchers will get less money in fiscal year 1998 than they did in fiscal 1997. "We all have to practice some triage," presidential science advisor Jack Gibbons told science agency officials.

Triage involves establishing priorities in emergencies, and the emergency in this case is the president's promise to submit a zero-deficit budget for 2002. With the deficit a target, the politics of triage are unlikely to keep the scientific whirlwind twirling as vigorously as it did in 1996. More sensible is the politics of compro- mise.

Science agency officials should show the president that they are serious about using money for projects directly useful to society. Clinton, in turn, should reward them with stable funding. He would thus prove that the bridge he spoke of during his campaign was indeed heading toward the 21st century, not just the White House.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World