It's thoroughly embarrassing -- another big crop of Nobel Prizes for American scientists. And it came just when the presidential campaigners -- echoing warnings and pleas from the leaders of science -- were pledging to rescue the research enterprise from alleged current or past parsimony.
How do we keep winning when the score-keepers of scientific finance dourly calculate that research has been in a fiscal slump for over a decade? Even the special budget boosts of recent years, they say, have merely gotten the purchasing power back to the levels of the late 1960s. They speak the rhetoric of ruination, as typified by the high-energy physicists who ominously warn that unspecified misfortunes await this nation if Western Europe is permitted to outspend us in identifying sub-atomic particles.
Nonetheless, since World War II, it's been a rare year in which American researchers haven't collected most, sometimes all, of the annual Nobel awards in physics, chemistry and the category of physiology or medicine.
The favored explanation of the mandarins of science used to be that European refugees, rather than home-grown scientists, were giving this country deceptively high scores in the Nobel sweepstakes. But when American-born and -educated scientist began to dominate the annual prizes, the poor-mouthing switched to the argument that the prizes are for research performed a decade or so back, and therefore are no measure of current strength. A decade from now, they would warn, the Nobel-giving Swedes will find nothing to honor in the tattered American scientific community.
The trouble with that argument is that it's been trotted out every year for the past 25 years, and the prizes continue to come in.
The true explanation for the durably high American achievement is that Nobel Prizes, which are almost invariably confined to accomplishments in fundamental research, are usually won in the laboratories of a handful of elite institutions. And even through the lean years -- yes, they have been lean -- of scientific finance, the federal managers of research money have seen to it that the superstar labs get a healthy share of the available funds.
Washington's steady background noise of egalitarianism in the distribution of federal funds does make it seem that research and development funds are doled out on a spread-the-wealth basis. A lot of it is distributed as a kind of hush money for universities that aspire to have something resembling scientific research on the premises. But the actual distribution of federal funds for Nobel-style science is highly concentrated and shows very little change over the years. Thus, out of 274 doctorate-granting universities in the United States, a mere 30 receive half of all the research money the federal government awards to academe. Ten of these institutions get one-fourth of the money. And, since research is an activity in which those who have are in the best position to get more, industrial and state support for university research tends to cluster in the same places favored by Washington's science administrators.
These distributions patterns regularly reinforce a scientifically productive class system. It's no secret that it's there. But it's rarely overtly acknowledged, for there's nothing but political trouble inherent in such lopsided fiscal realities of science as the New York and California receive 25 percent of all federal funds for university-based research.
Though the scientific community is routinely depicted as threadbare, it's common to find researchers and administrators at the elite institutions expressing gratitude and wonderment for their seemingly unique good luck in eluding hard times. It's tough all over, they'll tell you, but, fortunately, not here.
Many of the cries for assistance that come out of academic science are genuine, for there are numerous second-tier institutions that have gone into a downward spiral for lack of funds for salaries, student support and equipment. The top-level institutions can always use more, no matter how well they're faring relative to the bulk of academe.
It is nowhere written that science at a dozen or two institutions will be financed off the top of what's available. But that's how it works, and it's why those Nobel Prizes continue to arrive, regardless of what science's doomsayers tell the politicians.