It's a brazen proposition, an academic version of the Lockheed and Chrylser bail-outs, and then some. But, unfortunately, there's a strong dose of realism in an idea that's being pushed by the president of Johns Hopkins University, Steven Muller. Focusing on the chronically anemic finances of university-based science, Muller, in effect, is saying the following:
The nation needs this work because it is the bulk of our important science. But the costs of modern research are so great that, even with the feds paying most of the bills, academic is increasingly hard pressed to pay even token shares. Therefore, Washington ought to concentrate its research assistance in a "small group" of major universities and pick up the whole bill.
How many would be in this charmed group? A position paper that Muller has been circulating in science-policy circles doesn't say specifically. But it does note that "perhaps a hundred universities, and in truth, less than 50 or 60 produce high-quality basic reseach in large volume."
Implicit in this scheme is a clampdown on the spread-the-wealth politices that has flavored the selection of sites for big research facilities through much of the postwar period. And it's also likely that there would be some trade-off between academic independence and government-financed security, regardless of the inevitable assurances that nothing would change but the source of the money. In short, what is now heavily subsidized science would become wholly federalized science, still bearing the label of individual universities, but with no pretenses about the origins of the wherewithal.
Would that be much different from the present situation, in which some 70 percent of all university-based research is financed by federal agencies? The answer is that the loss of even that slim margin of non-government finance is bound to have a caution-inspiring effect on both institutions and individuals. It can be guarded against and abuses can be yelled about. But, as public policy and politics become more involved with technological issues, it's foolish to think that what's left of academic integrity will be enhanced by putting big science entirely on the federal payroll.
But if that's not done, what are the alternatives? There's a great deal of talk in government and academe about getting industry to support university-based scientists. Several apparently taint-free deals have been struck between big universities and high-technology companies. But, by and large, industry wants a quick marketplace payoff from its research investments. And it surely has no stomach for academics' blowing whistles on alleged malefactions of big corporations. The two don't get along very well, nor should they.
That still leaves, however, a situation in which, as Muller points out, academe is being priced out of science. "Basic reseach," he correctly notes, "quite simply has become so expensive that no university can execute it on any significant scale with its own resources."
Since research is now coming to be seen as a form of insurance in a dangerous world -- it was trimmed relatively little in the latest round of budget-cutting -- Muller's design will seep into policy, whether openly acknowledged or not.
That will then bring up a variety of problems, not the least of which will be: how to find independent experts in this complicated world when, in effect, all of them work for the same company?