WASHINGTON-Officials at the National Science Foundation are considering major changes in a five-year-old program that provides federal science agencies with information on research topics that are ripe for additional funding.
The program was begun in 1982 at the request of George Keyworth II, former presidential science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It enlisted researchers in an annual effort to identify a handful of fields where additional funding could lead to major increases in scientific understanding and, not incidentally, to innovative technology. Keyworth also won the support of the National Science Foundation, which has spent about $800,000 to fund briefings on 32 topics.
The review is conducted by the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy of the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. The committee prepares a 15-to-20 page briefing on topics that have ranged from agricultural research to artificial intelligence, and then meets with each agency to discuss its report.
The program enjoyed the close attention of Keyworth, who left in January to form a private consulting firm. Its fate under the new science policy adviser, William Graham, is uncertain. In the interim, Science Foundation officials are asking some hard questions about its purpose and direction.
Director Erich Bloch would like to reduce the number of topics, which has varied from four to nine each year, to no more than four. He also believes each year's list should contain at least one science policy issue, a change from its present emphasis on research issues.
Foundation officials also have begun to question the relevance of some of the briefings to the agency's mission. Several topics cover areas in which the foundation funds no research, such as oncogenes, interactions between blood and blood vessels, and the prevention and treatment of viral diseases.
"We're willing to pay the bill for things we're interested in," said Allen Shinn, deputy director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs and liaison to the Academy committee. "But if a subject is mainly of interest to the National Institutes of Health, maybe they should be supporting it."
An Institutes spokesperson said any request for co-funding would have to go through the "normal proposal and peer review processes."
Participants believe the program has been a success. Keyworth has said its greatest impact has been "in reinforcing perceptions, in strengthening resolve, and in clarifying the multiplicity of information converging on us."
Foundation officials said briefings on basic plant sciences, mathematics and solid earth sciences influenced their funding priorities in those areas. And they point to two topics in this year's report, one covering the science of interfaces and thin films and the other on protein structure and biological function, that will shape the agency's plans for next year.
Beyond the National Science Foundation, however, the briefings' impact is less clear. Agricultural research is the only topic chosen twice-in 1982 and 1985-and Allan Hoffman, executive director of the Academy committee, said the briefings "clearly have had an impact on federal funding" for basic plant sciences. That funding has risen from $97 million in 1983 to about $150 million this year. One area covered in the briefings, genome structure and gene expression, has benefited from a multidisciplinary Plant Gene Expression Center that was established last year by the Agricultural Research Service.
At the same time, Research Service Administrator Terry Kinney and members of his national program staff said they were unaware of the briefings.
The committee wants to make the briefings as useful as possible to federal officials, Hoffman said. The presentations are now given in June, rather than September, to give agencies a chance to incorporate the material into their budget proposals for the upcoming year.
The cycle for 1987 has already begun. Suggested topics will be re viewed at a committee meeting this month, and a final list will be drawn up in November.
Laura Tangley is features editor for BioScience magazine