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Research Programs Need New Directions

It seems like only yesterday that scientists across the country were struggling to survive in the face of enormous cuts in research funding by the federal government.

Some agencies were even targeted for extinction, and nearly all federally funded programs faced severe cuts as part of the effort to balance the budget.

That posed a quandary for scientists such as Neal Lane, president of the National Science Foundation and soon-to-be science advisor to President Clinton. Could the United States maintain its economic and leadership role in the world while cutting the guts out of research that fuels both?

“It was an experiment we had never run before,” Lane said recently during a symposium at Arizona State University.

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But that was then, and this is now. The president’s proposed budget calls for substantial increases in research funding. The NSF, which funds most academic research in this country, is targeted for a 10% increase, the largest in history, boosting the foundation’s annual budget to $3.8 billion.

“I like the way that number rolls off the tongue,” Lane said.

“Just three years ago, really draconian cuts were projected,” Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs for the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, told the Arizona meeting. “We calculated that if [they] were carried through, [they] would cut domestic research and development by one third over a period of seven years.

“Now, thanks to a remarkable improvement in the economy, that scary scenario has not come to pass,” he said.

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“People in Washington are more upbeat about R&D; funding this spring than they have been for some time. Normally tightfisted members of Congress have been signing on to legislation calling for doubling of civilian R&D; spending over the next decade,” Teich said.

But there is a catch. The increased budget for science is to be paid for out of projected revenue from the tobacco settlement, which now faces an uncertain future.

If the tobacco deal stalls, “that money is going to have to come from someplace else,” Teich said. “And that means a political battle that may not be easy for the research community to win.”

Part of the justification for using tobacco taxes for science is the simple fact that health remains the federal government’s No. 1 civilian science issue. The National Institutes for Health, for example, saw slight growth in its budget even as other research projects were getting the ax over the last few years.

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Behind the rising fortunes of the research community is, of course, the booming economy. But there are other reasons.

The proposed cuts forced many scientists into crash courses on politics, leading to what Lane calls a new generation of “civic scientists.” It was scientists, for example, who came out of their labs to convince Congress that a plan to kill the U.S. Geological Survey was ridiculous. A slimmer--but secure--agency was the result of that action.

But the role of the civic scientist does not end with funding, Lane emphasized. The world of science has changed dramatically in the last decade. Gone is the singular goal of winning the Cold War. In its place, chaos, to some degree, reigns.

The direction science should be taking in the years ahead is not that clear, even to top policy experts such as Lane.

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Some goals, such as better science education and getting a better handle on the “information age,” are obvious.

The collapse of the Iron Curtain, Lane said, probably was “as much the result of information technology as the development of armaments and the stockpiling of weapons.” It is far more difficult these days to keep people in the dark forever.

And knowledge is the strongest form of power.

Yet the information age has come on so quickly that few grasp its significance.

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“I don’t think any of us really knows how fast the technology is taking hold,” Lane said.

How we acquire technological understanding--and indeed how the mind learns anything--has become a major concern within the NSF and will continue to be so, Lane said.

But science as a whole, he said, needs new directions. The future will demand greater cooperation among all segments of society, blurring boundaries between industry and academia, for example.

It was a lot simpler when research was aimed primarily at beating the Soviets. Purse strings were loose; goals obvious.

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But to have the kind of science programs that will keep the United States at the top requires more than money. It requires a bold plan, and that plan must become much clearer.

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Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at leedye@compuserve.com


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