The Defense Department's research director has angered and worried some of the nation's top scientists by stating that researchers who oppose Reagan administration policies should not receive federal grants for basic research.
"If they want to get out and use their roles as professors to make statements, that's fine, it's a free country," Donald A. Hicks, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told Science magazine in a recent interview. But "freedom works both ways. They're free to keep their mouths shut . . . . I'm also free not to give the money."
Hicks' comments to Science echoed a position he presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in July. At that time, Hicks said he is "not particularly interested" in giving basic research funds to scientists who are "outspoken" critics of the administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the controversial "Star Wars" program aimed at finding a defense against nuclear missiles.
Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist who is president of the American Physical Society, said basic science grants should be awarded on the basis of quality, not political views.
"I must say I was dismayed and I found it chilling to find the suggestion that political loyalty to Defense Department programs would be used as a criterion for support of basic research by the Department of Defense," Drell said. "After all, they control something above 72 percent of the federally supported research and development work in this country."
Philip Anderson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Princeton University who is leading a scientists' campaign to shun SDI-related research, said he was "incredulous" at Hicks' statement.
"It's a form of thought control that is so far from what has ever been done in the research-granting area that it's hard to believe."
John M. Deutch, provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and frequent contributor to Pentagon advisory panels, said he had a "very strong reaction" to Hicks' comments. Deutch said he has known and respected Hicks for many years, when Hicks was a Northrop Corp. executive.
"I do not understand the report in Science," Deutch said. "My expectation is that he will be a steward of federal funds without regard to the personal political views of any principal investigators."
In his interview with Science, Hicks said he "probably would not stand in the way" of awarding a grant to a critic whose work was vital to the Defense Department.
"I'm just saying that for someone who is not vital, who is showing that he is not really a supporter, I don't see why I should make his life easier," Hicks said. "He's made ours tougher."
Asked for comment yesterday, Hicks said through a spokesman that he was quoted accurately in Science, but that his statements represented a "hypothetical opinion" and not policy. Science reporter R. Jeffrey Smith said, however, that Hicks did not call his opinions "hypothetical" during their conversation and that in a more recent interview Hicks restated the view.
Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physicist and spokesman for the physical society, said it is "ironic" that Hicks' comments were published April 25, the day of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the Soviet Union, which Parks called "a frightening reminder of the risks of suppressing expert debate over government policy."