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No Science, No Surplus

By D. Allan Bromley

Thursday, August 26, 1999; Page A25

America is on a roll. We're balancing the federal budget, reforming welfare and making retirement secure. Sound like a breakthrough in fiscal management? Not exactly. Our awesome economic success can be traced directly to our past investments in science. The problem is, this year's federal budget for science is a disaster, and it compromises our nation's economic and social progress.

Here are the latest budget numbers: NASA science is slashed by $678 million; science at the Department of Energy is cut by $116 million; and the National Science Foundation ends up with $275 million less than the president requested. Clearly, Congress has lost sight of the critical role science plays in America.

Federal investments in science pay off -- they produce cutting-edge ideas and a highly skilled work force. The ideas and personnel then feed into high-tech industries to drive the U.S. economy. It's a straightforward relationship: Industry is attentive to immediate market pressures; the federal government makes the venturous investments in university-based research that ensures long-term competitiveness. So far, it's been a powerful tandem.

Thirty years ago, the laser and fiber optic cable were born from federal investments in university research. Over time, those two discoveries formed the backbone of a multibillion-dollar telecommunications industry.

The fusion of university research and industrial development now generates about 5,000 new jobs and contributes a quarter-billion dollars in taxes to the federal coffer every day. It accounts for 70 percent of our economic growth. The result is undeniable. The fusion is primarily responsible for our booming economy and our growing federal surplus. So the consequences of a budget cut to science are equally undeniable: no science, no surplus.

The benefits of the science investment go deeper than just the surplus. Three years ago this month, welfare underwent dramatic reform. No one knew what the fallout from that would be. But the high-tech economy eased the burden. Unemployment was dropping to a 25-year low, and jobs were being created at a record pace. As it turned out, half of those jobs were generated by the high-tech sector.

The legislative challenge before us is patching up Social Security. Again, we'll rely on the science and technology juggernaut. Whether the solution lies in stimulating private investment or in steady federal surpluses, the proposals all rely on a familiar friend -- the strength of our nation's booming economy. And while Congress dithers, the public already is taking steps of its own.

Americans hold more than $5 trillion in communications and technology stocks. Our mutual funds, our 401K plans and IRAs are stuffed full of high-tech investments. The retirement security of Americans now depends upon the steady flow of innovations from technology companies. In turn, those companies rely on the steady flow of discoveries and trained work force generated by the scientific community. No science, no savings.

Scientific research at our universities and national labs is now a foundation of the economy and thereby vital to the success of social legislation. But rather than reinforcing the foundation, Congress is eroding it. That action couldn't come at a worse time.

America's science infrastructure is in decay -- aged science buildings on our campuses, dated laboratory equipment, antiquated computers. During the Bush administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy estimated the cost of rebuilding our science infrastructure at $100 billion. The Clinton administration has done little to address the problem. The budget Congress is proposing guarantees continued decay.

Congress must significantly increase science funding. Senators recognized the need last week when, with the support of Sens. Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, they passed the Federal Research Investment Act, which calls for doubling the federal investment in science by the year 2010. But appropriators haven't followed through. It's not too late -- budgets won't be settled until October.

For the sake of the country, I hope Congress will recognize the significant role science plays in society. Without science, there won't be a surplus.

The writer, the presidential science adviser in the Bush administration, is Sterling professor of sciences and dean of engineering at Yale University.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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