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Money for Thought


By Michael Stein

The image of the inspired scientist retiring to an isolated laboratory and daily coming up with miraculous new breakthroughs is mesmerizing but false. Jimmy Carter and his budget advisers understand that science takes time and money. His 1981 budget proposal reverses the disturbing trend in science policy during the past 15 years that had severely limited the funds available to certain researchers. Carter's new budget proposes investing more money than ever, $33.7 billion (up 12 per cent from last year) in America's scientific research and development. Carter's allocation is especially unusual in an election year. While the pressure for spending cutbacks increases daily, he encourages scientific progress.

Carter's emphasis on work in basic research--research designed to expand knowledge without concern for the immediate usefulness of the new information, shows foresight. Today's scientists work on projects that might last ten years. They collaborate with other workers to share the use and cost of the sophisticated and expensive equipment essential for advanced studies. To deter the obsolescence of such equipment, Carter innovately calls for "centralized equipment" available on a regional basis to several groups of workers, and offers special funds for this purpose.

Scientific breakthroughs often require years of fundamental research. The recombinant DNA technology that now allows scientists to produce insulin and interferon in the laboratory, had its roots in biological fields far removed from today's remarkable gene splicing experiments. A 40-year store of information in virology, cell biology and genetics, gathered by workers who could not even imagine the techniques of today, was necessary for the recent breakthroughs. University professors led this advance, and Carter has responded by raising the funds arriving at college campuses by 11 per cent.

Carter also proposes new links between industry and Congress in his attempt to accelerate research in certain critical areas. To make our limited gas supplies go further, Carter advocates a ten-year, $800 million fund (to be matched by money from industry) for work in automotive technology. He would finance this work with revenue from the windfall profits tax stalled in Congress. Additionally the National Science Foundation (NSF) will receive $700 million over ten years to join major oil companies in sponsoring ocean drilling programs.

Carter wisely has not fallen prey to the pressures for development of technologies with immediate application. Like physics research in the computer age, biomedical research has recently entered the commercial marketplace. The success of recombinant DNA work has turned basic research into applied science. Corporations have now entered the science game looking for quick profit. Carter sees that cutting research would push many scientists into industry and damage longterm prospects for future achievements. The imaginative ideas that offer practical benefits have often appeared at the end of a road dotted with less practicable but nonetheless critical ideas. Promising money to those who offer quick and patentable ideas can only hurt science.

Carter correctly predicts that the longterm pay-off from his support will be tremendous: "We benefit today, in new industries, in millions of jobs, in lives saved and in lives protected--from the investments in science made decades ago." Jimmy Carter has planted a scientific tree that will bear fruit for many years.

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