Erich Bloch is about to cross the finish line. When he steps down at the end of this month, Bloch will be the first director of the National Science Foundation in a generation to have survived a full six-year term.
Those unfamiliar with the NSF might shrug at the feat, for they could be under the mistaken impression that an organization run by scientists for scientists would be a scientific kind of place, where cool heads rule and decisions are made by rational men and women in white lab coats.
But NSF performs no science. Rather, the agency funds science. And because there are far more grant applications submitted to NSF than awarded, Bloch and his managers have, over the years, made many scientists unhappy. When it comes to funding, scientists can be every bit as petty, duplicitious and political as anyone else. For hell hath no fury like a condensed matter physicist scorned.
To many NSF insiders, Bloch's appointment six years ago by President Ronald Reagan was immediately suspect because the new director did not come from academia (he came from IBM, where he was a corporate vice president) and he was not a PhD (he is an electrical engineer trained in Buffalo and Switzerland). Most of NSF's clients are university professors with PhDs.
Bloch can also rub people the wrong way. He demonstrated a rare trait in a bureaucrat: he can be blunt. His press aides typically warn reporters that Bloch doesn't like stupid questions. He can be acerbic and stubborn. Even in these last hours, Bloch can still say things that infuriate scientists and needle Congress and the administration, which he faulted for its lack of an industrial policy.
Indeed, during an interview, Bloch said that scientists "have no inalienable right to funding" and that, in some fields at least, there simply "might be too many scientists" struggling for funds. "The system may have grown too big," he said. In some circles, such suggestions are almost treason.
He said there are good feelings for NSF in Congress, but that the support isn't focused. Bloch complained that legislators were shortsighted and that Congress, like a child, is often more infatuated with big, shiny-new, mega-projects like the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas than the everyday business of producing a scientifically literate citizenry and supporting basic research, the two overriding mandates of NSF.
"Look, it's not as glamorous to double the foundation's budget than to build a 50-mile ring in Texas. It's not that glamorous. It's not that political," Bloch said.
With his background in industry and engineering, Bloch took the NSF into a new arena by stressing economic competitiveness and by creating a number of centers devoted to technology and engineering. Many university professors are enormously distrustful of large research centers, which are criticized as being unimaginative factories where scientists act not as free and unfettered investigators but as cogs in a huge machine. More to the point, researchers feared the new centers would take money away from individual investigators.
Yet despite the belly-aching, the centers never became the servants of industry and never consumed more than about 2 percent of the NSF budget, which totaled $1.7 billion this fiscal year.
In the interview, Bloch hit another favorite note: competitiveness. Even though some of the shine has rubbed off the buzz-word, Bloch continues to worry about how to improve America's edge against Japanese and European challengers.
While Bloch agrees with the administration that the govenment should not be in the business of picking winners in new technologies -- "because the government doesn't know enough to pick the right ones" -- the departing director said that the government, in league with industry, should start about six centers devoted to what Bloch calls "generic, strategic technologies" that would focus on the development of new composite materials, biotechnology, electronics manufacturing and other such projects.
"It has come to the point that a single company or a single industry cannot afford to develop some technologies alone. It is too expensive. How many companies can afford $500 million? I would say very few. The government has to play a role in this," Bloch said.
As far as the state of science in America, Bloch said he thought priorities were skewed. While he said he supports the big projects, such as the Superconducting Super Collider and the Human Genome Project, he worries that the foundation of science -- the creation of the next generation of scientists and the support of today's scientists with equipment and dollars -- is eroding.
"We are dangerously close to not providing the infrastructure of science for the future," Bloch said. "If you don't have the people and you don't have the infrastructure, I don't know what the big projects are good for. They're there for people to use."
How to support the big projects then? "We have to get more and more into the habit of doing things with the Europeans and Japanese," Bloch said. Sometimes, these projects might even be built outside the United States.
"There are too many of these big projects laying on the table for us to do all of them," Bloch said. "We're not going to do all of them. I am convinced of that. There has to be priorities. I support the SSC, but it shouldn't be at the top of the list. Some of the projects have nothing to do with science. The space station is really a geopolitcal undertaking, not a scientific undertaking."
As for the future, Bloch said, science will increasingly be called upon to help society make sense of the conflicting and competing interests. Earlier this month he told a Senate committee: "The solution of virtually all the problems with which government is concerned -- health, education, environment, energy urban development, international relationships, space, economic competitiveness and defense and national security -- depend on creating new knowledge."
As for his own future, Bloch is keeping his plans under wraps. At 65, he says he does not plan to take another job with the administration, though he probably could be tempted to direct one of those generic technology centers he advocates. Bloch's successor has not been named.
"Plans?" Bloch said. "I plan to take a vacation."