Asserting that the federal government's science policies need a sharper focus and a sense of urgency, a presidential commission is expected to urge President Reagan to establish a Cabinet-level Department of Science and Technology to cordinate the government's sprawling civilian research and development programs.
The proposal for a Cabinet-level research czar, expected to be made public this month, does not come from scientists or academics. Instead, the authors of the commission report are a group of prominent business executives and representatives of organized labor appointed by Reagan to assess the strength of U.S. business in an increasingly competitive world economy.
Their report concludes in part that U.S. business is facing a serious challenge and isn't getting the help it needs from the nearly $50 billion in federal funds spent annually on R&D.
"There ought to be a technology gap, a big one, built and maintained in favor of the United States. The question is how to do that," said Gerald D. Laubach, president of Pfizer Inc., a leading U.S. pharmaceutical company, and a member of the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness.
The proposal is already opposed by some leading U.S. scientists, who say it raises a core question of how American institutions work best -- with centralized direction, or a random individualism.
"I am very skeptical about that," said David S. Saxon, who heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Philosophically, the present system, while certainly not perfect or absolutely efficient, like democracy itself, does have virtues of providing the broadest spectrum of responses to a broad spectrum of interests. It suits us well. It has worked well."
But not well enough, given the accelerating competition in high-technology areas from foreign companies generously backed by their governments' research agencies, the task force concluded.
The task force did not recommend a detailed plan for the proposed department. But Laubach presented the outline of the plan just over a week ago at a meeting of the Business-Higher Education Forum, a group of corporate executives and university leaders. He agreed later to put his remarks on the record.
Virtually all of the federal R&D activities other than those in defense would be combined. The new department would include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with an R&D budget of more than $3 billion; the Department of Energy, with a civilian R&D budget of nearly $5 billion; the National Institutes of Health, with about $4 billion; the National Science Foundation, with $1.5 billion; the Department of Agriculture, with $900 million; and other agencies. All told, the department would control one-third of the federal R&D budget, Laubach estimated.
The "umbrella" department, as Laubach called it, would not materially change the structure and strategies of those agencies, but it would have a symbolic and operational significance, Laubach said.
"In effect . . . , we believe that such a department, such a presence at the Cabinet level, would make clear the national importance of science and technology and research and development, and would establish an authoritative and significant voice in the highest reaches of the government," Laubach said. "It would provide the president with a . . . capability for comprehensive analysis and evaluation of science and technology issues and I think it could clarify what we believe the mission of the federal government in science and technology ought to be."
The department could make clear, once and for all, that the role of government R&D is to support basic research and technology development in a broad, generic sense rather than promoting specific scientific missions, Laubach said. Then, the coordination of the effort could gradually be improved, he said.
The president's commission recognized "that some programs that have served us well might be impaired as the result of the inevitable turmoil and confusion that always results from a reorganization," Laubach said. But the commission concluded, "The potential benefits warranted running those risks and absorbing those costs," Laubach said.
Behind the commission's proposal is the concern that the nation's spending on R&D is not being transferred rapidly enough into a form that industry can draw on.
The United States spends nearly $100 billion a year on R&D, roughly half of it financed by the federal government. The total represents slightly more than the combined R&D spending of Japan, West Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The United States and the four other nations spend about the same percentage of their gross domestic product on R&D.
But under the Reagan administration, there has been a pronounced shift in the makeup of the federal R&D budget, a recent Library of Congress study noted. The portion of federal R&D devoted to defense grew from about 47 percent in 1980 to nearly 70 percent in 1984, the study reported. Moreover, much of the nondefense R&D spending by the government goes to space and energy research -- and some experts question how much of that is directly helpful to U.S. industry's efforts to turn new technology into commercial products.
The Library of Congress study, while acknowledging the difficulty of such estimates, calculated that only 0.3 percent of federal R&D is directed toward the needs of civilian industry. By contrast, that figure in Japan and West Germany is 12 1/2 percent.
"While we continue to be the world leader in most areas of basic science, we are losing ground on the international marketplace of commercial products. And while our strongest competitor, Japan, lacks strength in basic science, it is extremely efficient at converting new ideas and technologies -- many of which are discovered by others -- to highly competitive commercial products," said Denis J. Prager of the MacArthur Foundation, in a study for the Business-Higher Education Forum.
But several university leaders at the recent Forum meeting warned that the strength of U.S. research has been its free-flowing, decentralized diversity. "Our basic research has been world leaders for almost 40 years and there is no sign of that diminishing. Government support has had its ups and downs, but over the 40-year span it has been remarkably steady. I really worry about centralizing it," said MIT's Saxon.
"Pragmatically, we have an example in the Department of Energy where everyone a few years ago believed there was a crisis and we had to provide that locus of attention to deal with it . . . and yet it has not worked effectively at all . . . . It turned out to be very difficult to assemble all those interests in one place and make it coherent.
"A lot of people are not persuaded it's wise to do it . . . . The risk is the creation of enormous uncertainty and instability in support for research . . . . There's also a sensitive function of who's in charge. You could imagine people in charge who would be so enormously creative it would be constructive. You can more imagine people for whom that would not be the case," Saxon said.
"When you centralize things, you always make it easier for opinion to be centralized as well . . . . That might be a serious mistake. If you want it to be innovative and creative, you need a system where people can shop around and no single person's notion of what makes sense is going to dominate what happens," Saxon said.
"It's a solution without a problem," said Robert M. Rosenzweig of the Association of American Universities. "Most [experts] would recognize a great advantage in dispersion . . . . It minimizes the size of the error from public policy decisions.
"If 20 to 25 years ago, such a department had existed and among its missions had been the support of basic science, would it have thought to support molecular biology?" Rosenzweig asked. Not likely, he concluded. And that research was the basis of today's U.S. biotechnology industry, the world's leader.
While the commission report is certain to trigger a debate, the Reagan administration isn't likely to be involved, at least not immediately. While George Keyworth, the president's science adviser, served on the commission that proposed the new department, the idea is not in the budget for fiscal 1986 and it not a "high priority," administration officials said.