One of the wonders of our scientific community is the durability of its sense of siege and privation in a society that by any measure has been very good to it.
You can pick your statesman of science, whether it be MIT President Jerome B. Wiesner, National Academy of Sciences President Philip Handler or double-helix raconteur James D. Watson -- the message is essentially the same: the U.S. government is, in one important way or another, neglectful of its scientific enterprise, and we can expect to pay dearly for this. Never mind this country's year-after-year domination of the scientific Nobel Prizes and other symbols of scientific depth and excellence; scientific decay, it is contended, will inevitably ensue if this or that -- usually more money and less accountability -- is not forthcoming.
Add in the routine warnings that the American public has soured on science -- said to be demonstrated by strong markets for astrology and Laetrile -- and the result is the strongly pushed image of dangerous indifference to an improtant ingredient of national well-being. And all this time -- the sour tale goes -- when the major industrial nations are trying to race ahead of us in science and technology, and other nattions, like China, are spending relatively great resources to overcome a late start.
The difficulty with these alarums about this country's care and feeding of its scientific enterprise is that, like overused drugs, they promote resistances.
For example, from long and unquestioned repetition, it is now widely accepted that the American public is hostile to science and its practitioners, and may even be coming to regard science as more of a problem than a source of benefits. Scientists themselves frequently complain that the public has turned against them. But upon close examination, it turns out that this is their devil theory for explaining the drop-off in the enormous budget boosts that research received in the 1960s. That the growth couldn't go on like that indefinitely is clear to anyone who understands compound interest, but many elders of the profession prefer the hostility interpretation.
While embracing that explanation, they do manage to overlook numerous opinion surveys that suggest that the public has high confidence in science and scientists and is counting on research to solve many of society's most troublesome problems. Maybe these polls are way out of whack, but their consistency does invite attention.
For instance, in a survey done in 1976 by the Opinion Research Corporation, 76 percent of the respondents said that "science and technology have changed life for the better." Only 23 percent said that the pace of scientific and technological change is too fast; 60 percent said that "government decision-makers" are most at fault "when science and technology cause problems." Only 5 percent blamed scientists.
In view of the commonly made claim that public hostility has led to crimped budgets for research, it ought to be noted that 60 percent of the survey respondents felt that too little was being spent on health research -- a field that has actually received abundant federal support.
In terms of actual spending, what has long been evident about research is that it can absorb all the economy can provide and still make reasonably good use of more. Thus, whatever the size of the oceanographic fleet or the number of space research satellites, it is not difficult to conceive of having more. With that understood, what has to be registered is that the federal budget for research and development has risen in two years from $26.4 billion to $30.7 billion. And, even allowing for inflationary slippage, those sums do not suggest parsimony. What's lacking, of course, is the wild growth and bounce of the go-go era of space activity. Our researchers now grudgingly have to pick and choose among interesting possbilities rather than say they'll take them all.
But this is simply a consequence of economic reality rather than stinginess or public hostility. The scientific community finds perverse comfort in seeing itself as an enclave of rationality surrounded by mean-spirited and dark forces. What it ought ot be doing is sorting out this country's scientific and technological priorities and howling about the channeling of research funds into politically popular but scientifically sterile purposes-such as the long, costly and fruitless quest to develop an artificial heart and the similar odyssey in quest of a viral link to cancer.
Examples abound. It's easier, however, to conjure up anti-science phantoms as the problem.