President Clinton proposed today nearly $3 billion in federal spending for new research in science and technology, saying the two subjects have become "the engine of our economic boom" and that greater national investment in them will improve the lives of all Americans.

In a speech at the California Institute of Technology, which is one of the premier research institutions in the country, Clinton spoke with awe about the many strides being made in health, medicine and computing and said that the federal government must play a critical part in advancing them.

The president's plan calls for giving the National Institutes of Health a $1 billion increase for biomedical research. It would also add another $700 million to the budget of the National Science Foundation, which is twice as much as it has ever received in one year, to help fund an array of research projects, and $500 million for research in a new scientific frontier known as "nanotechnology."

"Imagine the possibilities," Clinton told several hundred faculty members and students at Caltech, which was once an academic home of the physicist Albert Einstein, "materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a small fraction of the weight, shrinking all the information housed at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube, detecting cancerous tumors when they are only a few cells in size. Some of our research goals may take 20 or more years to achieve, but that's precisely why there is an important role for the federal government."

The spending proposals that the president touted today are the latest among many initiatives he has been previewing in advance of his State of the Union address and the budget that he will send to Congress next month. But with scarcely a year left in office, and one in which both the presidency and control of Congress will be up for grabs in November elections, his last domestic agenda faces uncertain prospects. The Republican-controlled Congress has, however, generally been supportive of increased funding for scientific research.

For leaders in science and technology, Clinton's latest spending proposal would be an extraordinary gift, one that would both broaden and deepen the federal government's commitment to research in fields as diverse as extending life expectancy, making computers smaller and faster, and improving air quality.

"This is a 21st-century budget for 21st-century science and engineering," said Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, whose headquarters are in Northern Virginia. "I'm thrilled."

Colwell said that by promoting federal spending that recognizes how interrelated so much of medical and computer research has become, and by focusing on the profound potential of nanotechnology, Clinton's plan would keep the nation at the forefront of technological research and further strengthen its economy.

In his address, Clinton often marveled at the technological changes rippling through society, noting at one point that when he first took office there were a mere 50 sites on the World Wide Web, and that now there are more than 50 million. But he said political leaders and scientists alike often fail to show the public why making early and sustained investments in technological research is essential. "For far too many of our citizens," he said, "science is something done by men and women in white lab coats, behind closed doors--something that leads, somehow, to things like Dolly the sheep and satellite TV."

Clinton began his speech with a long, self-deprecating discussion of his own foggy grasp of the intricacies and wonders of science and technology. He said that he was "sort of nervous" expounding on these subjects to an audience of such academic renown, then joked that in preparation for his speech he had spent time "trying to get in touch with my inner nerd." Later, he confessed that his firsthand experience with online shopping has been limited so far to ordering Arkansas smoked ham and sausage during the holidays.