President Reagan's budget cutters have proposed sweeping reductions in government support for science, and have made special targets of science education, economic and social science research and replacement of deteriorating instruments at top laboratories around the United States.
Scientific leaders reacted with shock and disappointment to what they called the "ideological," "foolish" and "strategically mistaken" nature of the cuts, which are laid out in documents prepared by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Rather than spreading the impact, the fiscal year 1982 cuts would kill several large, well-regarded programs.
The budge documents detail cuts in three agencies -- the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The targets in NSF are considered especially dramatic. The cuts would include $47 million from the science education budget, bringing it down 42 percent; $30 million from the social and economic research budget, a 75 percent reduction; the entire $98 million budget of "cross-directorate" programs including new instruments for universities, and programs for women and minorities in science. Also chopped out is the giant new 25-meter telescope. In the NASA budget a handful of planetary exploration programs were eliminated.
Dr. Lewis Branscomb, head of the National Science Board and chief scientist at IBM, said the science agencies, under leadership of the not-yet-appointed president's science adviser, could make far more sensible budget cuts than those recommended in what is known as the "black book," or working papers, of OMB director David A. Stockman.
"These cuts are inconsistent with what i believe the Reagan program called for, and which i fully support," Branscomb said. He added large cuts are in order but they must be made in a way that protects American defense and industry.
He said several cuts were "foolish" and would work against the president's priorities. "some of the [spending plans] were put there because of their urgency."
The programs he and several other leaders in science named as crucial included a $75 million NSF program to upgrade instruments and equipment at leading U.S. laboratories. This would be wiped out under the OMB recommendations.
Other programs they named as particularly important were the NSF program in science education, and the social and economic research supported by the USF.
"If this is the budget for a national emergency, then science will have to sit still for what other agencies are getting as well," said Dr. Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "We cannot engage in special pleading." But he and others voiced dismay at several specific cuts suggested in OMB documents.
On upgrading instruments of leading laboratories, a $75 million item, Handler said: "This is serious. If that is cut out, it is a serious strategic error. Science is the edge we have on the rest of the world; America is made possible by its tools. . . . But over recent years we have allowed the instruments at our best laboratories to fall behind the times, to deteriorate. So the government instituted this program at the strong urging of many people -- of almost everyone who has given any thought to the problem."
On slashing economic and social research, Handler said, "That's destructive. That's destroying a program, not budget-cutting. . . . This cut is almost an ideological act, as if they said, 'This is a good opportunity to put an end to that stuff.'"
William Carey, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, commented on the proposed reduction in the science education budget: "I am shaken by that. That is a poor target. If that goes through we must expect the quality of science to go downhill."
Branscomb of IBM, reflecting the nervousness of scientists over the failure of Reagan administration to appoint a science adviser, said, "I would strongly urge the president to quickly appoint a science adviser who can give him some guidance on his budget strategy.
"The science adviser would be able to tell him what is the best way to cut the budget and still maintain the defense of the country.I don't see how you can make those decisions at all in the absence of science leadership in the White House."