Warning that science and partisan politics are a bad mix, Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently urged his colleagues to stay out of the customary endorsement game -- "Scientists and Engineers for Whomever," he called it -- in the coming election.
Whatever the merits of that advice, it's not likely to be widely followed. If the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater contest was any model, it's a sure bet that some of Jimmy Carter's and Ronald Reagan's most effective troops will wear white coats. The Johnson landslide was overwhelming to the point of obscuring the particular ingredients of success. But prominent among them was the mobilization of some 50,000 scientists, engineers and physicians -- famous and obscure -- for spreading the word that Barry Goldwater was ill equipped for an atomic-age presidency.
Drawing upon pre-existing groups of proarms-control scientists in the universities. Scientists and Engineers for Johnson was quietly orchestrated from the White House science office, and was in high gear before the Goldwater camp recognized its political implications. Goldwater eventually tried to counter with some nuclear eminences of his own. But, in fact, not many were for him and, by the time he finally rounded up a few, Johnson's learned men in lab coats had logged many hours at community meetings and on TV screens carefully explaining the challenger's inadequacies. Like antacid salesmen invoking the magic of "science says," they sold Lyndon Johnson, apparently with considerable success.
What are the prospects for Carter's successfully adapting this line of attack and also for rounding up enough troops on the Johnson scale to give saturation treatment to the message that "science" doubts Reagan can handle the job?
Though "Scientists and Engineers for Whomever" -- a campaign fixture since 1960 -- never sprouts until after the conventions, I'd estimate that the scientific lay of the land favors Carter. Academe and its large scientific component is no more enthusiastic about him than it was about Johnson. But he has often spoken tenderly of higher learning, and has given it relatively generous budget treatment in difficult times. Reagan, meanwhile, is tagged as the governor who brought hard times to the University of California, though many academics there now acknowledge he did no serious mischief to the institution.
But the issue that politically galvanizes the white-coat set more than any other is control of nuclear weaponry -- a subject on which Reagan is now seeking to shake the impression that he fails to recognize the destructiveness of modern warfare. The claim of nuclear survivability is such an anathema to the World War II bomb project alumni who are now senior statesman of research, as well as to many in the younger generations of scientists, that the admonition to keep science out of politics simply makes no sense to them.
There's no reason to expect that the Reagan campaign will let Carter go unchallenged in the battle of experts. But it is interesting to note that scarcely any science types are included in the long lists of academic advisers that the Reagan camp has issued. He'll be able to sign up a few from the right wing of the nuclear establishment, as well as from the space industry, which feels neglected by the Carter administration.
But the bulk of the eye-catching names, such as Nobel Prize winners, plus that segment of the scientific rank and file that isn't altogether politically torpid, is almost sure to conclude -- if only reluctantly -- that Reagan is a menace and Carter isn't so bad.
And those troops, properly mobilized, can carry a lot of weight in a country that perks up to "science says."