The real failing of Sen. William Proxmire in his Golden Fleece forays against what he considers trivial scholarship is that he goes for the minnows instead of the whales.
A case in point is the senator's neglect to date of the long-gestating and finally issued government-financed study, "Energy in Transition -- 1985-2010": 783 pages, two years late, costing $4.1 million (about $2 million over the original estimate), produced by a cast of hundreds and containing nothing original of very useful. The work of a committee appointed by this nation's most prestigious scientific society, the private but congressionally chartered, century-old National Academy of Sciences, this blockbuster report is akin to a restaurant meal delivered to a table whose hungry occupants long ago went home.
For it was back in 1975 that Robert C. Seamans, head of the now-defunct Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), engaged the academy for a two-year, $2-million study that was to say all there is to say about "nuclear power in the context of alternative energy systems." Seamans was eventually replaced by James Schlesinger, more money for the study was requested and delivered, ERDA was absorbed into the newly created Department of Energy, Schlesinger was replaced by Charles Duncan -- and the study went on, into years three and four. The new department finally said no to more money, whereupon the academy, which regularly pleads poverty, put up $300,000 of its own to complete the project.
Though it is naive to assume any serious relationship between leisurely studies of this type and government policymaking, it should be noted that both the Ford and Carter administrations at least paid court to the notion that the academy study was to have a part in the formulation of long-term energy plans. In any case, the study droned on, headed up by a 14-member part-time committee, assisted by a half-dozen full-time staff members at the academy, plus some 300 consultants and about 100 witnesses at hearings in five cities.
In the preparation of the report, nothing came easy, as Academy President Philip Handler points out in a letter of transmittal. The first meeting of the 14-member reigning committee "was remarkable; the tension seemed almost physical; profound suspicion was evident; first names were rarely used . . ." Over four years, however, things got better, according to Handler, for now "the antagonists are personally friendly," though, even so, the preparation of a summary chapter "took on the character of negotiation of a treaty."
Can it be, however, that the tardiness and relatively minor additional expense are more than made up for by the quality of the final product? The answer is that at this stage in national energy deliberations -- following a flock of major studies by academic groups, think-tanks, Congress and others -- there don't seem to be any data or insights that have eluded notice. Thus, the academy study, like several of its predecessors, places a high value on conservation, sees a role for nuclear power and calls for expanded use of coal; it's optimistic about the long-range value of solar energy, but cautious about the near term, and so on -- in what amounts to a replay from the already sagging shelf of comprehensive energy studies.
Though the swift disappearance of this particular report is virtually assured, its tortuous production merits notice as an example of the officially fostered busyness that is so often substituted for useful work in Washington. The academy study, and dozens like it in recent years, provide for innumberable comings and goings, memos and countermemos, as well as sustenance for a career secretariat that moves from one study to the next, like migrant workers following the crops north. Along the way, the impression is created that government is reaching out for wisdom, when in fact it is wasting the time of a lot of people who ought to be doing something useful and cluttering up the public process with behemoth quantities of foolish documents.
The next big study ought to be on the phenomenon of the big study as a symptom of rudderless government.