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A Summary of the 1995 Sigma Xi Forum

Vannevar Bush II: Science for the 21st Century

Science Must be More Open and Responsive in the Aftermath of the Cold War

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC—American science and technology, which have contributed much to longevity, quality of life and the survival of democracy in World War II and the Cold War, face challenges in peacetime as the national agenda shifts to domestic issues, but research remains one of the most important investments in the future the U.S. can make.

Scientific progress is still essential for the nation's security, health and prosperity, as presidential science advisor Vannevar Bush maintained 50 years ago in his famous report Science—The Endless Frontier. In an era of cost containment and downsizing, however, the scientific community must assess its priorities and be more open and responsive to Congress and the general public.

These were among the themes of Sigma Xi's national forum on federal support of scientific research March 2-3. Speakers included some of the key players in the federal funding debates currently under way in Washington.

Federal research support has broad implications for the United States and for the approximately 90,000 scientists and engineers that make up Sigma Xi's membership. At the forum, titled Vannevar Bush II: Science for the 21st Century, about 350 scientists, engineers, business leaders and government officials examined many of the issues Bush addressed at the close of World War II. Their goal was to develop a new national mission statement for science in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Kenneth Shine, president of the Institute of Medicine, said American science has no shortage of missions now that the Cold War is over. "...We can replace the Evil Empire with what I call Three Ps and a D: Poverty, Pollution, Poor Jobs and Disease," he said. "They are as much a threat to the United States as the Soviet Union ever was."

The changing marketplace presents some special challenges for health research, Shine said. "...Most academic health centers have been subsidizing research with patient care revenues. Managed care isn't going to make the investment in research. Government should invest in long-term research opportunities. Industry will invest in short-term research...."

In a talk titled "Posing the Questions Science Has Not Asked," Neal Lane, director of the National Science Foundation, said that some soul-searching within the scientific community could help strengthen the scientific enterprise. He agreed with writer Eugene Ionesco that "It is not the answers that enlighten, but the questions."

Why, he asked, is there a fractious debate about the goals and value of science in the scientific community and in the public? A dialogue is needed, he said, so this friction does not remain a barrier. "Without fundamental research, there will be fewer solutions to societal problems," Lane said, "but more money doesn't guarantee success...."

Sigma Xi President Kumar Patel, who is vice chancellor for research at the University of California at Los Angeles, said change is needed in the academic reward system. He said the criteria for tenure should include partnerships with industry, technology transfer and communication to the public, and perhaps the discussion should even include the abolition of tenure.

The sweeping changes that are occurring in Washington as a result of the focus on reducing the federal deficit and the November 1994 elections have renewed tensions between what former National Academy of Sciences President Frank Press called two cultures, those with a scientific background or experience and those who join government without it. Graham Mitchell, assistant secretary for technology policy with the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, noted that, among other shifts in government, "Technology policy is being intertwined with trade and economic policy. ...The government role [in research] is where the risk is so high and the results so delayed that industry can't fund the R&D."

Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell said, "Vannevar Bush reminded Washington [in his presidential report] that research is a difficult and often very slow voyage over uncharted seas. ...A major problem today is that the public and government officials by and large do not understand science and how it is done. Science is an engine for change, but it is distressing that society views science with such great suspicion as a source of new hazards and of problems that arise in association with change...."

A major theme of the forum was the difficulty of describing the various aspects of research and explaining why taxpayers should support research and development.

Princeton University Professor Donald Stokes suggested that the popular image of science as a linear model, a spectrum from basic to applied research, has so captured the public imagination that it is hampering the dialogue. "...Bush maintained that, 'Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends' and that 'Basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress.' There are actually two simultaneous trajectories, basic understanding and technological application, which are both independent and connected...."

According to Drell, "The legacy of the Manhattan Project, and of other similar ventures like the Apollo moon landings, has created inflated expectations and a false picture of what science can do. ...In society's lack of understanding of science and how it is done, and its concerns about risks and hazards that scientific progress purportedly generates, I see a common theme: science simply has not entered our culture. By and large the society and government we rely on for support is scientifically illiterate. And that is a situation for us to correct--not only in our self-interest, but more so in our nation's and society's interest...."

As the nation focuses more on its internal problems, social science may become increasingly important, several speakers suggested. Social scientist Neil J. Smelser, director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, defined a social problem as having the following characteristics: The phenomenon must be shown to exist by actual measurement. It must be inconsistent or in conflict with some cultural value. It must have economic or social cost, and there must be a conviction that something can be done about it. Thus a social problem is not a thing, Smelser contended, but a political process.

Harvard University Professor Lewis Branscomb summarized his view of the current political climate. "I am convinced," he said, "that no public policy will long prevail if it cannot be described in a few words, which carry images that are intuitive to voters and their political representatives...."

Other speakers at the two-day conference included Katherine Gillman, who is coordinating the White House effort to rethink the role of the national laboratories; Martha A. Krebs, director, Office of Energy Research, U.S. Dept. of Energy, one of the largest federal sponsors of basic research; and Phillip Griffiths, director of the Institute for Advanced Study and chair of a National Academy of Sciences study on graduate education.

Nine breakout group discussions enabled participants to consider in greater depth such issues as whether U.S. science policy must be catastrophe driven, science illiteracy, experience with government-industry programs, the need for social science research, and what can be learned from experience in other countries.

Some of the conclusions and recommendations that emerged from these discussions included:

  • Scientists and supporters of science should draw the link between science and application, but should not overstate or oversell the ability of science to solve social problems.
  • There is an intrinsic tension between democratic principles and scientific elitism. Just as in other fields of endeavor--e.g., the arts or sports--this tension can be productive, because it pushes us to articulate our rationale to the larger public. Moreover, we must distinguish between meritocratic elitism, which encourages excellence, and elitist attitudes, which can undermine our efforts to justify public support for science.
  • Public participation is vital even in technical decision-making and planning for and setting priorities in science and technology policy. The burden rests on scientists collectively and individually to make public participation work and to participate in public decision-making. Not only should scientific literacy for informed democratic participation be encouraged, but the scientific community should improve its capacity to listen to and incorporate public concerns as well.
  • We must consider whether we are training too many Ph.D's. and define criteria for setting production goals based on job availability and national needs. We should increase the number of women and minorities getting Ph.D's.
  • A number of other countries, e.g., Australia, Canada, Germany and the U.K., have made considerable progress in developing a strategic national science policy in a socio-economic context and have different organizations for supporting science. It will be helpful for the U.S. to examine these policies and strategies, including educational and innovation policies.
  • Many complex issues of national significance involve both social factors and other factors addressed by the natural sciences. There remains, however, a distance between social science researchers and natural science researchers that impedes the needed interdisciplinary research on these problems, and universities do little to encourage cooperation across disciplines.

Forum funders included the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Science Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the U.S. Dept. of Energy, MCNC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Carolina Power & Light Company.


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