This is a happy week for the mandarins of American science, what with their annual Washington meeting graced by a rare presidential address at the venerable National Academy of Sciences. The traditional spring get-together is the occasion for seeing old colleagues, dispensing prestigious prizes, and, in general, reinforcing those relationships that justify the term "scientific community."
As such, it is not a suitable setting for considering some unpleasantries about science's close linkages with government-especially at a time when Mr. Carter is arguing Congress to come up to the high mark he has set for money for basic research. But, whether or not the statesmen of science realize it, the last few weeks have been a kind of Stalingrad for public confidence in both the professional skills and the ethical integrity of our science and technology establishments. I refer, of course, to the Three Mile Island debacle and the unrelated, but close-following revelations about how the government callously sowed cancer-and lied about it-in long-ago nuclear tests in the Far West.
"Don't blame us," will be the response of scientists and engineers whose work is remote from nuclear affairs. The trouble is that response won't do. The reason is that the public values science not only because science is demystifying and useful, but also because the scientist-as idolized by the doctor-hero of Enemy of the People or the oceanographer-hero of Jaws-is popularly considered to have a yen for separating truth from the marketplace. The notion has its native aspects, but television's frequent use of men in white coats to sell goods of various sorts signifies that market research has concluded that the public-no doubt to its loss-tends toward faith in the semblances of science.
And now we are informed that may scientists and public-health officials who knew about the menace of the nuclear tests remained silent, while some of those who spoke out went unsupported by their knowledgeable colleagues, and sometimes found their careers derailed. In regard to Three Mile Island, the origins and significance of the accident are still not clear. But, while several opinion polls indicate that a majority of the public continues to favor the development of nuclear power, a point that has been repeated in innumerable commentaries is that "they" said the accident couldn't happen. What must be noted, though, is that a small number of nuclear experts were warning for years that atomic power is simply too hot to handle on a commercial scale. With rare exception, however, the establishment responded to these critics by labeling them as cranks or out of date in their knowledge of nuclear technology. A favored put-down was to point out that few of the skeptics were members of the National Academy of Sciences or the National Academy of Engineering-which are supposed to encompass the elites of those professions. What's interesting to consider, however, is that the academies are self-perpetuating bodies that decide what accomplishments justify election to their coveted ranks.
While the leaders of science enjoy their annual Washington meeting, and exchange congratulations on the achievements of their profession, they might also ponder how much partnership and how much captivity they're getting out of their relationship with government.
The stock reply to such an inquiry is that science's traditions are strong enough to withstand any attempts at intellectual compromise; furthermore, that the high expense and diffuse economic payoff to science dictate that the federal government must be its main source of support-since industry won't pay the bills and academic can't. The result is that some 80 percent of the country's basic research is financed by the federal government; without that money, research in the universities would wither.
Those are the financial facts, and they can't be disregarded. But what that means is that the task of scientific statesmanship is to strive to violate the rule of he who pays the piper . . . Probably more so than the elders of the profession realize, a lot of people are rethinking, if only unconsciously, the trust they've bestowed in science. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Mike Peters for The Dayton Daily News