It is useless to wait for science to come up with an overnight solution to the energy crisis, according to the man who probably controls more basic research spending than anyone else in the world.
Richard C. Atkinson, the newly named head of the National Science Foundation, said Americans hoping that a scientific breakthrough on energy will preserve their lifestyles have "a false idea."
"There is no five-year solution. Science just doesn't operate with those turnaround times," he said. "The basic ideas are in place to deal with the taing down the road 50 years - solar energy, fusion, there's no end to the paths that can be taken." It is dealing with the problem until then that is difficult, he added.
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Atkinson, 48, is in a position to know. After 10 months as acting NSF director, he was sworn in June 1 as head of the NSF. The 27-year-old government agency, which has a projected budget this year of $883 million, is the world's largest supporter of basic theoretical research. Its list of programs, fellowships, projects and centers fills a 60-page booklet.
"I don't see anything around at the moment that will come forward and convince us we don't need to have an energy program," Atkinson said. "I don't think anybody should expect it."
The fact that many people do, he said, is the sad product of what he called "a lack of science literacy" nationwide. That problem is "a basic incomprehension of what science is all about, how it works, what the principles of the basic sciences are," he said, and it is an ironic by product of the mind-boggling scientific achievements of the last 20 years.
"After Sputnik (the first Russian satellite) in 1957, there was a big rush to catch up here in the schools," Atkinson explained. "They put in a lot of high-powered curricula, giving kids sophisticated science early . . . and the courses got tougher and tougher."
As a result, fewer and fewer students learned more and more. "That rush for science grads has passed us by but the curricula are still in place and the courses are incredibly tough. Now we have a small core of students really well educated in science and a hugh group that just doesn't have that dedication and drops out . . .
"Those people never have any exposure again. Even college graduates now are really poorly informed on science matters," Atkinson went on.
Liberal education, he added, should include a solid grounding in basic sciences so that citizens would be able to understand more clearly what was at stake in issues ike the fate of breeder nuclear reactors and research into the gene manufacturing possibilities of recombinant DNA.
"Most people don't have the vaguest idea what those things are all about," Atkinson said. "The level of debate could be a lot higher."
The National Science Foundation has a long history of involvement in promoting science education, which Atkinson said will remain a top priority under his leadership. Grants for that purpose took $60.8 million of the NSF fiscal 1975 budget.
That year the NFS-financed high school curriculum, "Man: A Course of Study," made the news when it was banned in several school districts nationwide, including Prince George's County. Then Rep. John B. Conlan (R-Ariz.) attacked it as teaching "a world view rather than an American view," and some parents objected to its exploration of values in different cultures around the world. Fundamentalist religious groups didn't like the course's assumption that much human behavior was controlled by genes.
Atkinson only smiled at the memory. "I still think it was good and very moderate," he said. "Educational methods are always challengeable on both sides."
The NSF turned in a major way to funding application of science chiefly through its Resources Applied to National Needs (RANN) division set up in 1971.
With a budget of $83.6 million 1975 fiscal year, RANN funds problem-oriented research aimed at pinpointing and then solving the scientific elements of some public need.An entire research program with a staff of 75 and 100 research projects on energy development and use was transferred from RANN to the newbborn Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1975.
RANN-funded specialists are studying earthquake-proof building design, weather modification, medical instrument technology and the extraction of protein from unusual sources. They are looking into the ways the market for minerals fluctuates, the way danger levels for pollutants are determined and the way U.S. tax policy affects productivity.
The new Intergovernmental Program is trying to increase the use of known technology by local and state government officials to solve mundane problems like garbage pickup, waste disposal, traffic control and computerization of paperwork.
"The issue of whether we (the NSF) are in or out of applied research has been resolved: we're in it, "Atkinson said. The question has been an issue throughout the scientific community, whose elite has traditionally been involved in "pure" or theoretical research rather than the solution of day-to-day problems.
Atkinson warned, however, that neglect of basic research would be "incredibly foolish. He noted a decline of 18 per cent in spending over the last 10 years for such research nationwide and called it "a real problem . . . you can't have that and not suffer real damage in the long run."
The moon landing effort was only possible because basic theoretical groundwork had been laid in the 1940s and 1950s, he said. "The war on cancer might have been a lot better off devoting the money to basic study rather than to one highly targeted research area," Atkinson continued. "I worry that the nation may turn to applied research so strongly it neglects basic research, and basic research remains our fundamental commitment."