Does the visiting Mr. Teng really want to equip his country with a scientific establishment that can rank with the best in the world?
The advantages of doing so are obvious and often recited. And all those back-and-forth delegations of Chinese Scientists and their new-found and old American shopping lists aimed at fulfilling the Chinese ambitions. But Mr. Teng and his political comrades ought to realize that a thriving scientific community can be a big nuisance, too.
First of all, as is common when people or institutions make the transition from poverty to affluence, they tend to have difficulty with financial moderation. This theme has been so prevalent in the post-war history of science that hindsight now suggests that if you can't keep 'em poor, be prepared for the busting of the bank.
I. I. Rabi, a Nobel-laueate physicist who was not averse to plump budgets for his profession, conceded as much 15 years ago when he observed, "There is something like a Parkinson's Law that scientific activity will grow to meet any set budget and find it to be grossly inadequate. It is in the very nature of science that new discoveries open new fields of further activity."
Corroboration, though with a perverse ring, has been attributed to Nikita Khrushchev, who is reported to have said of money-seeking scientists: "You must never believe all these thing which the scientists say, because they always want more than they can get."
One way, of course, that they get it is by claiming that other countries are more responsive to the needs of science. For this purpose, the international brotherhood of science is already making use of China's fledgling efforts at scientific debelopment. Thus, the head of the U.S. National Science Foundation recently said that China's leaders recognize the ultimate practicality of basic research, adding that they have grasped this lesson "At a time when American opinion seems incresingly uncertain of the value of basic research and scholarship."
Another product of scientific development is scientific superstars, who, depending upon whose policies they're goring, can be seen as desirable or otherwise. The dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, for example, has, at leeast so far, been shielded from severe retribution by his past eminence as a researcher and his international professional associations -- including a helping-hand election to foreign membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1973.
But apart from the superstars, of whom, after all, there aren't too many, scientific development can produce a lot of independent, often-quarrelsome, and politically unpredictable people. Nuclear energy originated in scientific research, but scientists have predominated in nearlt bringing its progress to a halt. The Vietnam war exceeded all others in the use of scientific gadgetry, but scientists were in the vanguard of opposition to the war. scientists can be tamed, which the Soviets have accomplished through carefgul recruitment, high rewards for performance and conformity and strict regulation of outside contacts.
But when scientists are accorded the combination of a line to the national treasury and the opportunity to join thr international mainstream of their profession, some substantial segment of them will frequently part company with the ideology and values of the home team. They are not alone in such departures. But their indispensability for the running of a high-technology society makes it easier for them to deviate and more difficult for the regime to do much about it.
So, all good wishes to Mr. Teng and his colleagues in their quest for scientific modernization through close contacts and massive exchanges with the West. But one wonders if they've considered all the contents of the package known as Western science.