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Inside the Beltway

Science in Crisis: Fact or Fiction

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Washington is a town that thrives on accusations, leaks and exaggeration. The goals of the propagandists are control, power and turf. And capturing the attention of the media is central to any success they might achieve.

In an age of electronic communication, channel surfing and limited attention spans, the 10-second sound bite has become crucial for anyone hoping to get a message across. For science, the message this fall has been reduced to a single word - Crisis!

A little more than a month ago, Presidential Science and Technology Advisor Jack Gibbons and other analysts punctuated this exclamation in commentaries at the George Washington University symposium Science in Crisis at the Millennium. A day later, similar notes reverberated in the marble rotunda of the Low Memorial Library at Columbia University, site of the conference Science the Endless Frontier, 1945-1995.

For scientists, policy makers and politicians, the central question is how much truth underlies the rhetoric? To find the answer, one need look no further than the new five-year projections for the federal science budget.

Democrats and Republicans, alike, have repeatedly proclaimed strong support for basic research. But whether the budget forecasts emanate from the Democratic White House or the Republican Congress, the out year spending plans for science are anything but encouraging.

The presidential budget, released in March and adjusted in July, forecasts a drop of 18.1 percent in constant dollars for the National Science Foundation's R&D account over the period 1995 to 2002. The Republican plan, contained in this year's congressional Budget Resolution, offers a slightly more positive projection, but still shows a cut of 6.8 percent.

For the Department of Energy, which accounts for about 50 percent of all federal funding in the physical sciences, the out year projections are even bleaker. During the last few years, the DOE has been an agency under siege. Attacks on it have come from antagonists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Not surprisingly, its projected budget through 2002 reflects the political hammering it has been taking. But its budget also reflects the low visibility the agency has as a prime sponsor of scientific research.

Where the DOE stands in the scientific pecking order became clear last spring, when the Clinton Administration released its budget priorities. To meet its stated commitment to basic research, the White House identified agencies that it said should receive favored treatment in the federal budget. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health made the cut, but the Department of Energy didn't. As a result, in the Administration's plans for the out years, the DOE General Science budget, covering high-energy and nuclear physics, is projected to slip 20.7 percent, and the Energy Supply R&D budget, covering Basic Energy Sciences and Fusion Energy Science, suffers a 27.8 percent plunge. The Republican plan shows about the same size cut for the total of the two activities, but it allocates it differently: 12.6 percent for General Science and a whopping 38.0 percent for Energy Supply R&D.

The die has not yet been firmly cast, but the projections for science reflect several political realities. They can be understood with little sophistication.

Usually, out year budgets attract as much attention in Washington as reports of a new pothole on Pennsylvania Avenue. After all, federal budgets are annual agreements, with no individual Congress considering itself bound by the fiscal plans laid out by any of its predecessors. Budgets are also political documents that reflect the current mood of the country. When the mood changes, as it often does from one year to the next, budget priorities are quickly readjusted to meet voters' altered views and expectations.

But the severely constrained out year budgets released this year are likely to stick, at least for a while and at least in the aggregate, if not in detail. Balancing the budget by 2002 has become the mantra of both political parties. And with public trust in government still falling, woe unto any politician who even hints at breaking this fiscal covenant, at least anytime soon.

With Republicans pressing for higher defense spending and Democrats holding firm on entitlements, the civilian discretionary budget - less than 17 percent of all federal spending - is caught in an extraordinary vise. Barring any other action, it must trimmed by almost one third, if a balanced budget is to be reached.

While these political realities pose serious challenges, the threat to the scientific enterprise has not yet reached crisis proportions. Recent surveys show that science enjoys extremely high support among the public. And on Capitol Hill there is continuing good will for basic research among members of both political parties.

But what lawmakers lack is a clear understanding of how the impending budgetary decisions will affect the nation's technological future. Economists and policy planners can provide some of the answers. But in the end, it is the scientific community that will have to deliver the message. If it fails to do so, the die will be cast, and the threatened crisis will become reality.

Is this a call to arms? You bet it is!

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin