OF THE 102 Nobel Prizes awarded over the last decade, the United States has won over half -- more than three times as many as second-place Great Britain. (For those who like to keep track of such things, the Soviet Union has won two.) Because the bulk of these prizes recognize fundamental advances in basic research, they are ample evidence that this country is doing something -- in fact, many things -- right in the organization, support and general climate provided for basic research.
But because the prizes are generally given for research performed at least a decade earlier, and because these men and women were trained several decades ago, even the most recent prizes cannot be taken as evidence of the continuing health of the American research enterprise. In fact, there are two reasons why scientists are anxious about the near future.
There is the worry over budget cuts. Within the relatively small portion of the federal budget that is available to the new administration for discretionary cutting, the money for basic research stands out as a tempting target. Unlike most other federal programs, it has only a small, though influential, constituency. More important, the effects of such cuts have no immediate impact; they will not be felt for years. On Top of Mr. Reagan's commitment to expand defense spending -- and therefore, necessarily, defense-related R&D -- the overall impact on research in all other fields could be very serious.
A second source of concern is the pending reorganization of the National Science Foundation. Prompted by congressional anxiety over the decline in innovation and productivity, and by unmistakable shortages of funds in engineering schools, the NSF, which for 30 years has been the chief source of support for basic research, is embarking on a new course designed to give greater emphasis and money to applied research and engineering. If the new areas must compete with basic research for the same -- or an even smaller -- amount of money, the long-term effects could be serious.
It is impossible to measure with precision the contribution of technological innovation to economic growth and productivity, but there are few who would argue with the view that it has been a major contributor to U.S. economic growth inthe past several decades. The direct link between basic research and subsequent innovations is also indisputable. Transistors, microprocessors, lasers and bioengineered bacteria are just a few examples of how recent basic research discoveries have led to major industrial enterprises. Nothing in the budget is sacrosanct. Many desirable programs must be cut. All we are saying is that where the budget for basic research is concerned, the budget-cutters should proceed with extreme care.