The latest figures from Washington's official scorekeepers show that thePentagon controls nearly 75 percent of all the money that the U.S. government spends for research and development. If common sense prevailed, this statistic would properly trigger a national day of economic mourning.
But militarization has easily oozed across the U.S. scientific landscape. The result has been an acquiescence to grotesque distortions in scientific values and social priorities.A perfect example is the declining fortunes of long-term fusion research. If fusion pans out, it could provide an abundance of clean, cheap power early in the next century, just when oil is expected to run low. The Russians and Western Europe are working hard on fusion. But the United States, while not abandoning this promising line of research, is cutting it back sharply, and its talented researchers are drifting off to where the jobs are: the Strategic Defense Initiative.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, a multi- million-d ollar fusion research apparatus near completion may never be utilized because of cutbacks by the supporting agency, the Department of Energy. DOE, despite its title, is more involved with building nuclear bombs for the Pentagon than with the task of supporting research that will fill our energy needs when the present misleading oil glut has evaporated.
The government's civilian and military research spending used to be evenly balanced. But starting late in the Carter administration, the Pentagon nosed ahead, and then went into a gallop under the Reagan administration.
Defense-related research is budgeted to receive all but $17 billion of the $61 billion that the government plans to allocate for R&D this fiscal year. The sum for defense has nearly doubled since 1981. The sum for government- supported civilian research has remained almost unchanged.
Research statistics are dry and unpalatable and of little public interest. But they are regarded as omens of potential doom by the industrial managers who know the realities of our worsening high-tech competition with Japan, South Korea and other manufacturing upstarts.
Last month, in an unannounced meeting, the chief budget minders and policy-makers at the White House received an urgent appeal on research from three of these industrial technocrats: Roland Schmitt, senior vice president and chief scientist of General Electric; David Packard, chairman of Hewlett- Packard; and John Young, president of Hewlett-Packard and chairman of the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness.
Meeting with White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, Office of Management and Budget director James C. Miller, and National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter, they made a straightforward plea: put more money - another billion or two - into science in the universities. Academic research, they argued, is our main fount of knowledge for the basic science that underpins industrial technology. And it also provides the training for the special ists who go into industry.
Federal money for campus laboratories has indeed risen during the Reagan administration, but so has the cost of doing research and the intensity of foreign competition. Japan earlier neglected basic science in favor of concentrating directly on product-related research. It has openly committed itself to challenging the United States on the frontiers of science, where we have long led the world.
In record-breaking amounts, U.S. industry is spending its own money on research, and it's also contributing major sums to help university science. But the U.S. Treasury is the most potent force in this business.
The industrial leaders who visited the White House to plead for help for university research weren't there out of old school ties or cultural affection for science. They were trying to educate Mr. Reagan's chief assistants to the fact that laboratories are the gold mines of our era.