False Tears for the State of Science


Washington. -- Cancel the funeral. Contrary to lugubrious reports, science in America is not expiring under financial deprivation, nor is it even in a "virtual stage of siege," as Time magazine announced in a recent cover story. Science has difficulties, but they are not reflected in the apocalyptic wailing of the statesmen of science and their journalistic choristers.

What is the state of American science? It is well-financed and immensely productive -- the leader in most fields of research, the mecca for science students from around the world. Research in America may be underfinanced, but it is far better financed than in any other country or combination of countries. For non-defense R&D;, the U.S. spent $78 billion in 1989; Germany, France and Britain together spent $43 billion, and Japan $45 billion. In scientists and engineers in R&D;, the U.S. leads, with 949,000, double the number in Japan, and nearly three times the number in the European Community.

In almost every discipline, Americans are by far the leading producers of research papers. Opinion surveys continually reflect a high public regard for science. The White House and Congress are in rare harmony on generous funding for research. The National Science Foundation is slated for a 15 percent budget jump next year, while other federal agencies will average 3 to 4 percent. Fraud revelations merit concern, but they have not impinged on budgets.

Even financially stretched NASA has been good to science. NASA's deputy administrator, J.R. Thompson, recently told a House hearing that "science has not been screwed in NASA for a long time, and it won't for a long time to come."

Why, then, does science resound with lachrymose tales of neglect and nostalgic serenades to a Golden Age that never existed. Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, surveyed scientists last year and "found a depth of despair and discouragement that I have not experienced in my 40 years in science."

He and another Nobel laureate, David Baltimore, refer to the late 1960s and early 1970s as the happiest era. In that period, Dr. Baltimore has written, "research money seemed limitless." Today, he adds, "the money seems to be drying up."

But the claimed Golden Age also resounded with lamentations of neglect. In 1968 the New York Academy of Sciences assembled on "The Crisis Facing American Science," and reported that, because of budget cuts, "morale in the scientific community is ,, low." The conferees agreed that failure to provide more money "could result in long-range dangers to the welfare of the nation and the world."

The nature of science assures that no amount of money can ever suffice. Scientific inquiry is open-ended and financially insatiable. But on top of that, the leadership of the scientific community has been blithely irresponsible about resources, always assuming that Congress will deliver in response to horrific warnings. Priorities are anathema to the managers of science. In their view, all scientists have a right to consider their work vitally important, and who's to say it isn't?

Sacrosanct is the ancient system in which each Ph.D. produces a dozen or more Ph.D.s in the course of an academic career, with all assuming that grants await the newcomers. If not, crisis alarms go off.

The National Institutes of Health has led the way in producing these crises, despite a doubling of its budget, to $8 billion, over the past five years. With all that money in the bank, NIH indulged a process of grade inflation that rated a preposterous 95 percent of its grant applicants worthy of support. NIH also enlarged its grants and lengthened their duration. Soon enough, NIH was burdened by a "mortgage" that left very little for either new Ph.Ds or most of the old-timers. Thus, a "crisis" at the world's most bountifully financed center of health research.

Politics has usually found the money to indulge the statesmen of science in their passion to have it all, from "little science" to multi-billion-dollar atom smashers. That's the easy way, and it would be pleasant if it could continue. But scientists seem to be the last who believe that it can.

The affliction of science is an incapacity to recognize economic and political reality. That's not fatal, but it can be dangerous to what is, after all, a delicate and valuable national enterprise.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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