It is commonly recited that those supreme examples of big technology, the bomb-building Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon landing, are poor models for dealing with mundane problems - so commonly, in fact, that what is no more than a useful historical insight has been turned into a deadening rule.
The issue deserves attention because large-scale technological mobilization does make sense in certain circumstances, some of which now exist, most conspicuously in energy-related matters. But the arbiters of scientific and technological fashion - having long scoffed at the naive question, "If we can land a man on the moon, why can't we . . . ?" have succeeded all too well. And the result is that the governance of science and technology is now permeated with a distrust of goliath undertakings, a craving for penny-pinching accountability, and an absession with difficulties rather than opportunities. The blame for this can be justly spread around: A space program conceived as a public circus was bound to lose its audience; like space, the "war on cancer" was oversold and contributed to the distrust of grandiose schemes, and, finally, money for big ventures is now politically difficult to obtain - especially when memories of technological debacles remain fresh.
The net effect is technological timidity in a country that is teeming with technological strength. And nowhere is it more apparent - or ironic for being there - than in the public pronouncements of Engineer-President Jimmy Carter, who has subtly combined loudly proclaimed generosity for university-based science with an intense frugality toward research of direct commercial value. The rationale is that government alone is the financial mainstay for academic science, while industry ought to tend to research that can make money. The reality, however, is that American industry - with a few exceptions - is not awash with technological adventurism, and if government doesn't get out there and put big resources into lagging areas of public importance, the research just isn't going to get done, at least in the United States.
One of Mr. Carter's reactions to the current gasoline shortage invites attention to the excess of caution that dominates his administration's attitudes toward research and development. Meeting last week with leaders of the big four automobile manufacturers, the president announced a study aimed at establishing a program of government and industry research collaboration on greater fuel efficiency. "This is a very exciting prospect for me," Mr. Carter said.
For the rest of us, however, it ought to be regarded as a very depressing one, because what this pending government-industry research compact clearly establishes is that, six years after the OPEC embargo clearly spelled out the energy perils of the Western world, research that ought to be well underway is yet to be started. Given the fact that the Department of Energy does not lack research money, it is appalling to find that any reasonable possibilities for fuel-efficiency research are not being exploited. But, since Mr. Carter and the automobile industry are talking about just that sort of research, the only conclusion is that it just hasn't been done.
A quest for why this is so can profitably look to the "Science and Technology Report" that the president sent to Congress last year. It is one of the gloomiest, put-down documents that any government has ever issued on the subject: "The experience of recent decades suggests that too often too much has been expected of our scientific and technological breakthroughs. . . . Failure of our technology to meet our expectations is, in part, a reflection of the fact that each new advance serves not only to satisfy old needs, but also to create new needs almost simultaneously."
And it goes on with similarly dour observations: "The most significant thing we have learned may be that technological solutions are unlikely to be permanent or complete solutions. . . . Each advance seems to generate new problems as it solves old ones. . . . We are coming to realize that science and technology by themselves are often inadequate to ensure enhanced social welfare." And so forth.
What has to be recognized is the great strength that the U.S. possesses in science and technology and in the ability to use them. The Soviets covet our computers; we have no interest in the museum pieces that they produce. Foreign potentates come here to have their hearts rebuilt, and China is mainly counting on our universities to bring its youth abreast of modern science and technology.
Now that we have worn the hair shirt for the past abuses of science and technology, it's time to act on an important reality: The United States has an immense powerhouse in its scientific and technological enterprise, and while prudence and thrift should not be forsaken, this enterprise could do nicely without the shackles of doubt and parsimony that have burdened it for so long.