The Cato Institute's Edward L. Hudgins [letters, Oct. 24] is mistaken in his views concerning the government's historical support for basic science. Right now we're enjoying the return on government's investments in aerospace, semi-conductors, the Internet, and other things that have changed our society and fueled our current economic growth. When government funds noncommercial basic research, the whole country benefits.
But no more. According to National Science Foundation data for 1998, the government's share of all research and development funding was at an all-time low of 30.2 percent at $66.6 billion, and was a dismal 8.3 percent ($2.9 billion) in the vital basic science research area. Clearly, industry funding sets the pace at 65.1 percent and $143.7 billion.
Though the federal government's share of research funding has recently risen slightly, the downward trend has continued since 1978, when the private/public ratio was 50:50. Why is that important? Because basic science research enables industry's investment in developmental research on new products and services.
Unless Congress halts the decline in government support for basic science, this country will forfeit the technology initiative to Japan, Korea and Europe. If we continue to act as if someone else will do it, someone else will.
Edward L. Hudgins's response to Newt Gingrich's Oct. 18 op-ed column, "We Must Fund the Scientific Revolution," complained that the government's record of picking "winners is poor," citing the $2 billion spent on the superconducting supercollider (SSC). However, the SSC, although widely acknowledged to be an instrument that would have conducted cutting-edge physics research, was terminated mostly because of interstate rivalries and concerns about international participation.
Mr. Hudgins ignored such winners as the global positioning system and the Internet. Both started with federally funded research. More recent examples include the Human Genome Project and the Hubble Space Telescope. It is too early to predict the impact of the not-yet-completed Genome Project, but to suggest that the federal funds for this project were wasted is ridiculous. In addition to its effects on astronomy, the Hubble may have an impact on women's health--the same techniques used to improve images obtained with the Hubble's flawed mirror (a flaw produced by a private contractor) turn out to be potentially useful in the early detection of small breast cancer tumors.
Finally, Mr. Hudgins also ignores the fact that a considerable amount of the government's money goes to the nation's universities. This funding, competitively awarded, has produced an internationally recognized scientific establishment and helps train this nation's next generation of scientists and engineers.