From the lab to the corridors of power

Science, Money and Politics
December 14, 2001

Daniel Greenberg - formerly news editor of the leading US journal Science and latterly editor of an influential science newsletter - has made a career of reporting on the continuing campaign by scientific leaders to ensure the flow of money for research. Science, Money and Politics is basically a history, in some detail, of American science politics during the past five decades. As such, it is not easy to summarise. But it seems clear that Greenberg is markedly cynical about scientists and about scientists' paranoia about their level of support by the government and appreciation by the public, although he seems not to be cynical about science itself.

His approval, on the whole, of the achievements of post-war science draws some of the sting from his amusing descriptions of the foolish or self-serving behaviour of individual scientists, who come across as very human. In only a few cases is the claim made on the book jacket borne out strongly, that Greenberg "blows the whistle" on those who "sacrifice ethics... for money".

What are the accusations Greenberg makes against "science" and "scientists"? Some - perhaps not all - of the accusations can be found in the following list, mostly taken from the book's chapter headings: institutional calcification; the Vannevar Bush myth and the "glorious past"; the "whimpering giant" or, we never had it so good; artificial claims of a PhD shortage; the fuss about "public understanding of science" and the tenuous connection of this to funding; complicity in grandiose, wasteful projects; and "the ethical erosion of science".

The accusation of institutional calcification is one with which many scientists would partially agree. It is strange that as the nuclear arsenal contracts, the three giant weapons labs at Sandia, Los Alamos and Livermore seem no smaller or less busy than they have ever been. Yet, if one examines the creativity with which scientists in those labs have adapted the institutions to new projects, one is struck by the ability of rigid institutions to change. At Los Alamos, with which I am most familiar, the basic research effort now ranges from genome sequencing and an innovative programme in nonlinear science to high magnetic fields and materials science. Scientists do not sit around twiddling their thumbs just because an organisation chart makes no sense.

On Vannevar Bush and the "glorious past" - guilty as charged. It is clear that Bush, who masterminded the American technical and scientific effort during the second world war, was not a godlike figure who created the federal funding system for science single-handed with his phrase "science - the endless frontier", resulting in a mythical golden age when money for research grew on trees. But myths seem to be a necessary social glue that all walks of life invent for themselves, and why should scientists be different? Actually, those of us who were fortunate enough to have spent careers in the great industrial labs during their heyday - Bell, IBM, Xerox Parc for example, did experience a golden age that is no more, and the statistics that Greenberg quotes, saying that industrial support for basic research is still strong, are nonsense. What industry today calls basic research is something totally different from that of the 1950s and 1960s.

A number of chapters are devoted to bringing out the fact that through all the vicissitudes of changing governments, even through a period when Richard Nixon entirely abolished the scientific advisory apparatus in the executive branch of the government, support for science as a whole has grown and grown and grown. Throughout this growth and in spite of it, the level of complaint from eminent scientists about the parlous state of the funding of science has remained remarkably steady. With each new administration, both the rhetoric of the politicians and the apprehensions of scientists have forecast a reining in of scientific support which, as Greenberg documents, never seems to happen.

The present administration, in an example too recent for the book, began its career proposing drastic cuts in everything but the National Institutes of Health (NIH), headed by complete abolition of the venerable (and remarkably efficient and useful) US Geological Survey, which had presumably run foul of the oil men in the Bush administration. In a praiseworthy demonstration of the uses of "institutional calcification", the survey's friends in Congress quickly strangled the proposal. (Sometimes, of course, the rhetoric goes the other way - Greenberg documents a speech by Hillary Clinton promising great largesse for medical science, in which she seems to have been unaware that what her husband was proposing represented a sharp cutback from the previous budget.) There does not seem to be much difference between or within the political parties as to how science fares, and to a remarkable extent the scientific establishment has adapted itself to this fact, becoming studiedly non-partisan. But non-partisan, as is brought out in a chapter that I much appreciated, does not mean inattentive to the political process. The "science lobby" is very well paid and well funded, if infinitely more discreet than the gun lobby or the oil lobby. In ways that Greenberg points out are fairly mysterious, it seems to manage its job very well. May I venture to suggest that this may in part be because it has a good case to make: science is good for the economy and does provide essential manpower for industry and commerce?

A particularly well-documented case of unjustifiable whining on the part of science's advocates (in this case the National Science Foundation) was when the NSF kept issuing studies during the 1980s and early 1990s appearing to predict a serious shortfall in the national production of PhDs in science. As eventually came out in the course of congressional hearings, the NSF's studies ignored completely the question of whether the observed decrease in production was caused by a lack of demand for the PhDs, which in fact was the case.

The movement for "public understanding of science" provides another story that is the source of some amusement at the scientists' expense. The movement's often-repeated justification was that increased public understanding was likely to lead to increased appropriations for science. Greenberg reports on a proposed popular sitcom created by Leon Lederman, the particle physicist, and by a staff on a small NSF grant, which was intended to sell science to the public. It was, as Greenberg remarks with satisfaction, rejec-ted by the networks, in spite of its soap-opera treatment and overblown scientific claims. One critic objected to the implausibil-ity of the science, and she was quite right, but the example she chose was unfortunate - during 2001 a scientist has indeed crea-ted the imagined machine that will allow the public to feel the shape of a molecule. But exactly what is Greenberg's point here? He makes a very good case that science's influence and appropriations are quite healthy despite a low level of public understanding of science, but he never really gets to grips with whether it might nonetheless be a good idea to increase this level, if it could be done.

An interesting section of the book deals with the different fates of the three giant scientific projects of the Reagan administration: the superconducting supercollider, the missile shield (variously known as Star Wars and SDI), and the "international" space station. One would have thought that Reagan's declared preference for a smaller government would mark him as a budget cutter for technology, but in fact two out of three of these initiatives still live and still represent an overcommitment of resources by any possible reasonable measure. Space Station Freedom, as Reagan dubbed it, is still draining the budget of tens of billions of dollars to no scientific purpose, and the National Missile Defense, as it is now known, quite apart from its continuing costs, still sits perversely in the way of realistic disarmament.

Finally, Greenberg makes a fuss about the ethical lapses that are being reported in the news with increasing regularity. One senses a degree of exaggeration of the practical and/or scientific importance of developments, which seems to stem both from the scientist and from the reporter. Unlike political news, there is a tendency towards complicity by the science reporter, rather than healthy scepticism. This is often exacerbated by institutional PR. The scientist, for instance, finds a gene remotely related to some disease, and the story comes out predicting a cure in short order.

A more disturbing trend is towards serious conflicts of interest among university scholars, fuelled to an extent by explicit pressure on the part of government in favour of commercial involvement in university research. This situation was more thoroughly analysed in John Ziman's important book Understanding Science .

Greenberg's prescription for all these ills is a greater involvement of scientists in the political process. He points out correctly that such cold-war relics as the Federation of Atomic/American Scientists and the Council for a Liveable World have contracted and carry little weight in modern politics, if only because they are physicist-based and the enormous expansion in science funding has occurred on the biomedical side. Perhaps, he would say, if politics is of necessity going to intrude on science, science should make bigger waves in politics.

Throughout the book, I found myself spluttering "but, but, but..." - and this last is no exception. So, there are only four scientists in Congress - that is still, if one does the sum, a large overrepresentation relative to our numerical strength. Yes, we failed to kill SDI, partly because of the pusillanimity of the National Academy - but we held it down for 20 years. And scientists do seem gradually to be winning the argument about global warming and the rise in carbon dioxide levels by putting forward the simple facts. Are those scientists who have made the waves here "non-political"? (Incidentally, this issue seems to be off Greenberg's monitor screen.) For its intended American audience, this is an interesting book because it places before us in vivid prose our own failures and foibles, healthily deflating many of our cherished myths. It does not matter much that the facts are often selectively reported or biased by innuendo. But on the whole, I would recommend non-American readers to read the Ziman book, rather than indulge in schadenfreude at the Americans' expense.

Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is professor of physics, Princeton University, United States.

Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion

Author - Daniel Greenberg
ISBN - 0 226 30634 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 530

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments