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  Latest News  
  June 15, 2004  

  Reagan's R&D Legacy
From supercolliders to Star Wars, Ronald Reagan provided excitement for scientists and engineers


  The passing of President Ronald Reagan has resurrected memories of a turbulent time. Although history may eventually be kind to his eight years as president, Reagan instituted a lot of changes, both good and not so good, that kept the Washington, D.C., science and technology establishment working for a coherent voice.

Like most incoming presidents, Reagan had a vague idea that science and technology were good and important things for the nation, but he had little idea how the system worked or the extent of the federal R&D programs. Consequently, he got off to a slow start. There were serious stories that Reagan would abolish the White House Office of the Science & Technology Policy and that he was not able to get a top-flight scientist to come to work for him. Reagan eventually appointed George A. Keyworth II, a nuclear weapons physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, as science adviser. Keyworth was replaced several years later by William R. Graham Jr., another weapons scientist. By the end of Reagan’s Administration, however, the president was generally considered to have marginalized the office and had little direct contact with his science adviser.

A still controversial move made in Reagan’s first year was an executive order requiring cost-benefit analyses of all federal regulations by the Office of Management & Budget. The result was a drastic drop in the number of regulations published during Reagan’s first term compared with the previous four years. While supporters of this move praised the reining in of an out-of-control regulatory bureaucracy, many others believed that important beneficial rules were delayed or dropped.

Speaking of rules, when Reagan took office, he immediately put on hold 36 regulations finalized in the last days of the Carter Administration, including many Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations. The biggest of these was an OSHA rule that required labeling of hazardous chemicals in the workplace. This regulation was later implemented, but in a much revised form.

Reagan had promised to reduce the size of government, and among his plans was the elimination of the Departments of Energy and of Education—they were deleted from the fiscal 1983 budget proposal—an idea later part of the Republican “Contract with America” put forth by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) when he became Speaker of the House in 1995. Reagan also killed most of the alternative and synthetic fuels projects begun by Carter in response to the 1970s’ oil embargoes.

Reagan’s economic programs, so controversial then and now, generally supported federal science programs. Although trimming some grant programs, his initial budgets were supportive of R&D and provided decent, if not large, increases for most science agencies. The Department of Defense was an exception; it got very large increases for R&D, especially basic research. As Reagan’s term went on, however, the rising federal deficits and lower revenues that were the result of a recession took their toll on R&D budgets. Soon, agencies such as the Energy Department, the National Bureau of Standards, and even the National Institutes of Health were looking at budget cuts.

Reagan also was a big supporter of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Reagan began pushing the idea of a space station in 1983, beginning with more funding for space shuttle missions. Initially, the space station was to cost a total of about $8 billion and be completed by 1991. It would “permit a quantitative leap in our research in science and life-saving medicine,” Reagan said in 1984. Today, the crippled space station is more of a problem than a solution, and its critics are concerned that it will continue to be funded much further in the future.

Reagan may be most famous for his 1986 proposal for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an antimissile program so far from scientific and technological feasibility that it was quickly dubbed “Star Wars.” Originally proposed as a $26 billion five-year project, SDI got congressional approval. A smaller version of SDI is still being pushed by the current Bush Administration.

Another project begun during Reagan’s term was the Superconducting Super Collider. Conceived in 1987 as the ultimate particle accelerator, it was to have 10,000 superconducting magnets and be 53 miles in circumference. Because of the cost, there was immediate opposition to the project. Initially set to cost $4.4 billion and be completed in 1996, the project hung on until 1993. By the time it was killed, $2 billion had already been spent and its final cost had ballooned to more than $11 billion.

A number of things Reagan began in the early 1980s have survived as successful programs. Although he initially tried to eliminate most science education funds from the National Science Foundation, Reagan later reversed himself and provided even more funds to NSF for education, including establishment of the Presidential Young Investigators award program. He also was a major supporter of increasing technology transfer between government and industry laboratories, a concept that is considered normal business today.

For companies, Reagan tried to encourage more research by providing economic incentives. These included the 1981 Economic Tax Recovery Act, which provided a 25% tax credit for corporate research and is still a popular program. Reagan’s Administration was also the beginning of a time when Congress and the government increased funding for basic research but significantly cut programs for applied or developmental research—the Republican philosophy being that it is not the government’s business to develop products for companies. This view still holds sway in Congress.

Comparisons of presidents are perilous, as the differences in times and circumstances are important. But in reviewing Reagan’s science and technology experience, rough similarities with our current President arise. Both came to Washington with no working knowledge of the science community. Both seem to have divorced themselves from their science advisers for technical advice, and both proposed grandiose but flawed technology projects. Both greatly increased spending on national defense and security and then reduced science budgets as a consequence.

Reagan’s legacy for science may be that he brought the community together, if for no other reason than the community was forced to make clear that science is important to the national interest. The way things are going, maybe Bush’s legacy will be the same.
  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

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