WASHINGTON—What goes from zero to $10 billion in one year? National Academy of Sciences president Frank Press’s solution to the problems facing the scientific community.

Last spring, Press delivered a stem talk to academy members about the need to set scientific priorities. The federal budget is a zero-sum game, he warned them, and the scientific community had better decide what’s most important before Congress acts for purely political reasons.

That speech was widely applauded as along-overdue attempt to bring ivory tower scientists in touch with the real world of $150 billion budget deficits. Although some segments of the community— notably proponents of the space station and the superconducting supercollider—felt that their pet projects were being attacked, the consensus was that the time had come to talk about what was affordable, not just what was possible. Congress was similarly impressed, with the Senate Budget Committee asking the academy to suggest a...

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