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Congressional projects examine national science policy, funding

Congress has begun work in two areas to address the need for a new national science policy.

The House Science Committee's Science Policy Study, headed by Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), a physicist and vice chairman of the committee, will "conduct a comprehensive review of our national science policy and develop a new, sensible, coherent long-range science and technology policy."

In remarks last fall, Mr. Ehlers laid out the rationale for this study. "The basis for our economic engine in this nation is science and technology. The discoveries that we make today are going to fuel the economy 30 to 50 years hence, just as today our economy is fueled by the discoveries of three to five decades ago. Thus it is very important for us to have a national science policy that reflects that change in atmosphere between the US and the rest of the world, that reflects the change in science, that reflects the change in foreign relations, and that, in particular, reflects the change in economic structures in the world today."

This effort started with a meeting of 35 prominent scientists and policy makers, and a similar meeting with early-career scientists. In each meeting, Mr. Ehlers posed a series of policy questions to formulate an overall vision. The study is expected to be finished by mid-1998.


In an 11-page working paper dated December 4, 1997, the National Science Board (NSB) "offers its perspective��������������������������� concerning the funding of scientific research by the federal government." The paper contributes to the discussion of a national policy to coordinate and prioritize federal research investments.

"Presently, there is no widely accepted way for the federal government in conjunction with the scientific community to make priority decisions about the allocation of resources in and across scientific disciplines," the board said.

The report reviews the post-World War II rationale for justifying federal support of science, and concludes that, although time has brought changes, "we believe that none would invalidate the justification for wise government support of research��������������������������� Changes in national priorities do not negate the potential of research benefits, which are long-term and uncertain in detail but have proved over time to be substantial."

To improve the effectiveness of the government's investment, the board urges greater coordination of the federal portfolio across all disciplines, as recommended in a 1995 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report. That document called for the administration to present annually a comprehensive science and technology budget to be considered as a whole before being referred to different Congressional committees.

The NSB found that "no agreed upon method exists for carrying out [the] task" of setting priorities. It recalls suggestions of an earlier NAS report which recommended allocating research resources so the US remains "among the leaders in all major fields of science and the leader in selected major fields."

Although the board endorses these guidelines, it "believes that they may not go far enough" to determine the optimal level of investment, and urges "further study��������������������������� before a particular methodology for setting priorities is adopted."

The paper concludes by warning that "although many scientists consider the task [of priority-setting across disciplines] both undesirable and undoable, the NSB believes that this difficult task will become increasingly important and must be faced over the next few years."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 11, 1998.

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