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Reagan's R&D Legacy

by David J. Hanson
June 21, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 25

The passing of president Ronald Reagan has resurrected memories of a turbulent time. In his eight years as president, Reagan instituted a lot of changes 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 are important for the nation, but he had little idea how the system works or the extent of the federal R&D programs. Consequently, he got off to a slow start. It was reported that Reagan would abolish the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and that he was not able to get a top-flight scientist 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. Supporters of this move praised the reining in of an out-of-control regulatory bureaucracy, but 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. A revised version was later implemented.

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 that was 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 oil embargoes of the 1970s.

Reagan's economic programs, so controversial then and now, generally supported federal science 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. Soon, the Energy Department, the National Bureau of Standards, and even the National Institutes of Health were looking at budget cuts.

A big supporter of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, Reagan began pushing the idea of a space station in 1983. Initially, it was to cost a total of about $8 billion and be completed by 1991. Today, critics are concerned that the crippled space station will continue to siphon funds from more deserving programs.

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 initially set to cost $4.4 billion. By the time it was killed in 1993, $2 billion had already been spent, and its final cost had ballooned to more than $11 billion.

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. His 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.

Comparisons of presidents are perilous, 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, as it 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.



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