Returning this week to Academe after five years as head of the world's biggest bankroll for university-based research, the billion-dollar-a-year U.S. National Science Foundation, Richard A. Atkinson quietly offers some jarring thoughts for the political and scientific communities:
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.), of Golden Fleece notoriety, is really a friend and effective supporter of scientific research.
The Afghanistan-induced cutoff scientific collaboration with the Soviet Union is costing us our best means of keeping tabs on Soviet research capabilities.
The post-Sputnik "reform" of high school science courses made them so difficult that it has ironically contributed to less public understanding of science.
West Germany and Japan derive a big competitive edge in world trade markets from the United States' massive commitment to military research.
A Ford appointee who was asked to stay on by the Carter administration, Atkinson, an experimental psychologist turned administrator, is one of those indispensable but inconspicuous managers who keep this country's knowledge industry humming along. Now bound for one of Academe's plum jobs, the chancellorship of the San Diego campus of the University of California, Atkinson takes with him a reputation for having navigated the foundation through a rebuilding from the ravages of the anti-science Nixon era. NSF has its detractors, and they're not only disappointed grant-seekers. But relative to the rest of the U.S. government, the foundations is a smooth-running and widely respected organization -- in Academe, in Congress and among foreign research organizations.
No boat-rocker, Atkinson speaks candidly from the perspective of someone who has long occupied a prime observation post over a large slice of the nation's intellectual life. In a long interview shortly before his departure from Washington, he chatted easily about some of the major issues and events of the past five years.
While it's de rigueur for the statesmen of science to denounce Proxmire, Atkinson takes the view that the nettlesome senator -- who has taken off after NSF-supported projects -- ought to be listened to carefully, and that the scientific community shouldn't take the position that outside criticism is to be equated with hostility to knowledge-seeking. "Sen Proxmire has actually been a good supporter of the foundation," Atkinson remarked. "Unfortunately, the type of criticism that he sometimes levels at us is picked up by others that are less knowledgeable, and that type of criticism has been difficult for us to deal with at times."
As for the punitive reduction of scientific relations with the Soviets, Atkinson expressed sympathy for the Carter administration's motives, but added, "I would very much worry over the long term if we closed that 'window.' I think it's too important to us both in a political way and in terms of understanding events in the Soviet Union." The Soviets, he observed, seem to have done a remarkable job of invigorating scientific and technical education for their entire population -- not just for professionals. Meanwhile, the situation in the United States warrants concern, he said, both on the grounds of talented students shunning scientific careers in favor of high-paying careers in others fields, and of a general decline in scientific studies.
"I sometimes think that the high schools have made the science courses so difficult that they've reduced the population of students who will take these courses. If you take a look at a typical textbook for high school, my belief is that it asks too much. . . . I'd much prefer to see the standard high school courses in chemistry, physics and biology be taught at a less demanding level, but ensuring that a much larger proportion of the students get that type of exposure."
The reason for this, he continued, is that the world of micro-electronics, telecommunications, genetic engineering and so forth is going to be bewildering for those who are untutored in modern science and technology. "It's just simply the case that so much of our life has a science ingredient to it that one can't be expected to understand, to appreciate, the nature of life without some scientific understanding."
Turning to the sensitive issue of the big and growing proportion of government research and development funds allocated to the military -- now past the 50 percent mark of all federal R&D spending -- Atkinson noted that West Germany spends only about 10 percent on the military, and Japan considerably less. These countries, he said, have been rapidly increasing their investments in industrial research, and that's contributed to their strong showings in world markets. The big share and the United States puts into military R&D may be politically and militarily necessary, he said, but we ought to keep our eyes open concerning the ecomonic effects, and consider a big boost in spending for civilian research.
Unlike many of his colleagues in the upper echelons of governance of science, Atkinson has a clean record when it comes to crying wolf or to promising miracles if only more money is dished up for research. As an eminently knowledgeable observer for an essential, though often fogbound, segment of society, his eve-of-departure comments on the state of science and government command attention.