We live in a time of science and technology and the future of the U.S. depends in many ways on how well the country deals with the challenges science offers.
Unfortunately, the nation is limping along without any clear policy on science. There are no priorities for what should be funded, or why, or for how much.Yet the federal deficit makes it clear that budgets must be kept under control and spending be carefully thought out.
The issues are many and complex. How much money should be devoted to basic genetic research, with its enormous promise? How much should go for AIDS research and how much to other biological projects? Does the U.S. really need a costly space station? What priorities should other NASA projects have? Should the U.S. build a $6 billion supercollider? What should be spent on the exciting new field of superconductivity? Is too much going for military research at the expense of basic science? What kind of mix should there be? Will multi-billion dollar projects dry up available resources for small science, which may be just as important?
These questions are hardly being thought about in Washington, let alone answered. Neither Congress nor the administration have offered any guidelines for dealing with all these conflicting needs.
The situation isn't much better when it comes to candidates vying for the presidency or seats in Congress. Nobody is raising these crucial issues. Maybe candidates are not even aware they exist.
Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Science, is urging fellow scientists to take matters into their own hands and at least set priorities among projects proposed by the White House.
That's a step in the right direction, but will anyone pay attention? Future administrations should consider a beefed-up role for the present science adviser - but perhaps stopping short of a Cabinet-level Department of Science and Technology, as some have suggested.
The U.S. has many of the best scientists in the world. Let's make better use of their judgment in forming a coherent national science policy - instead of the ineffective hit-or-miss approach now being used.