"You all can come on up now," said a voice over the White House intercom in a final-days drawl. Upstairs in the Oval Office, President Carter and nine past and present American Nobel laureates, including three of the 1980 prize winners, stood in a stiff line, poised for what was billed as a photo opportunity. It was the first event of a long day, the end of which, at the Swedish Embassy, was as lively as the beginning was subdued.
Carter's remarks were brief, and at times, almost inaudible.
His back to the sun coming in from the window, he stood at the middle of a group that included Wilhelm Wachtmeister, the ambassador of Sweden, whose embassy hosted the reception for the laureates later in the evening.
Carter lauded the scientists for furthering a "better understanding of the universe God gave us," smiling briefly as the camera lights flashed. "Long after the work of statesmen has been forgotten," he continued, "the work of these men will be remembered.
In the last three years, said the president, "we have reversed the trend of less commitment to science," and added that he intended to see that the progress continues. There was a moment of silence. The president turned, and began talking to the laureates about subatomic particles. pThe bright lights blinked out. End of photo opportunity.
"We met with the president maybe five minutes before the photographers," said Baruj Benacerraf, a 1980 prize winner for his work in immunology.
"There was time to say only 'Thank you very much.'"
Sweden is the country of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and the man who created the prize, an award now worth more than $200,000. The Nobels, with the exception of the Peace Prize, are awarded in Stockholm each year on Dec. 10. This year eight Americans will be making the trip.
The laureates spent the longer part of the afternoon before the House Committee on Science and Technology, issuing Cassandra-like warnings about the decline in American support for basic scientific research.
Chairman Don Fuqua (D-Fla.) introduced the laureates to the committee, or what there was of it. Staring at the empty chairs around him, he apologized for the absence of the Republican members of his committee, who he said were meeting with President-elect Reagan.
"Our aim," he said, reading from his prepared remarks, "is to assure that the underlying structure of research support not only continues, but flourishes."
Committee members drifted in and out, some staying to pose a question or two. One by one the prizewinners pulled their microphones close and lamented, in so many words, what they called a decline in the country's standard of excellence, a decline in technical manpower, in PhDs, in willingness to fund research that produces no immediate results and the shrinking coffers they have faced since the go-go years of the Sputnik era.
"Basic research needs a guardian angel," said Val Fitch, a 1980 winner in physics.
"Quality," Benacerraf said, "is the whole story. We in this country have just gone through a period of time when there was a fear of competing for excellence, a time when it was almost wrong for someone to be better.
"But the fact of life is that the world is a competitive system. It is absolutely imperative to try to be the very best."
If the tone of the day was dire, the evening's was not. At the elegant Swedish Embassy, with its elegant ambassador and countess presiding, laureates, diplomats, scientists and members of Congress mingled beneath the crystal chandeliers, lifting crackers off the trays of gloved waiters who darted along the tapestried walls.
Standing near the grand piano was physicist Fitch, who said he'd had no inkling that he was to receive an award this year. "Oh my no," he siad, "UPI woke us up at six in the morning to tell us about it."
There was Gilbert Gude, former congressman from Montgomery County, now director of the Congressional Research Service; and Sen. Claiborne Pell, who spent much of the evening talking with Lawrence Klein, the 1980 laureate in economics.
The talk was of prizes and professorships, and of course, of the man who'd made it all possible.
"Nobel was a complicated man," said Nils Starfelt, the embassy's counseler on science and technology. "He was a bachelor, you see. He made a lot of money from the dynamite, and then he set up the foundation." Guilt, perhaps? "I couldn't say. He was a very complicated man."
The early evening reception turned into a party, as the guests showed no inclination to leave early and new ones kept on showing up.
Back in the cloak room, James Cronin, the third of the three 1980 prize winners in Washington for the day, was getting ready to leave. He buttoned his coat, and echoed the sentiments he had expressed earlier in the day.
"This decline of excellence is tragic," he said, searching for his briefcase. "Maybe it's part of being a free country. Maybe people come home from work tired and what they really want is the Johnny Carson show. . . . But I don't think so." A frown crossed his face, then a smile -- a moment of inspiration. "Do you know the story of the soldier who lay dying at the end of World War I? He consoled himself by reading Gray's 'Elegy' Now," said Cronin triumphantly, "isn't that better than the late, late show?"