Big Science, Bad Science

Where Science and Politics Meet

by Jerome Wiesner
McGraw Hill, 302 pp., $6.95

Where scientists and politicians meet there should be conflict; and so there was for a time. This healthy condition no longer prevails. Scientists and politicians now dance together, advance dos-à-dos, bow, scrape, exchange compliments. A regrettable spectacle.

What brought about this decline? One looks for a clue in Jerome Wiesner’s book, but, as I shall try to show further on, he evades the question or, perhaps does not recognize the circumstances which demand an answer, a critical evaluation. I propose therefore to sketch the background against which what Wiesner has to say should be examined.

Before the big war, scientists and politicians in this country minded their own business. They were different breeds. Neither group admired the other, neither really understood the nature of the others’ activities. Science was a small enterprise; scientists met no payrolls; they were poor, frugal, and proud. It would not have occurred to them to ask the politicians for money, nor would they have got any if they had asked. All the same, research thrived. We are still living off discoveries made in the spare years when the total sum spent on science altogether was less than is now demanded for a single engine. When E = mc2 began to threaten as a weapon instead of a theory; it took a letter from Einstein to the President of the United States to get the government to lend its support to further investigations. A plea from a lesser figure would have expired in an ordnance colonel’s—more likely major’s—basket.

The bomb, as we all know, changed everything, including the status of scientists. Within half a dozen years science became a big enterprise. Two billions were spent on the weapons which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then the A.E.C. alone has spent more than thirty billions to keep us safe and the world peaceful. U. S. Scientific agencies have sprung up like toadstools after a rain. Money has been lavished on machines, laboratories, universities. Salaries of scientists have risen sharply and all sorts of delicious privileges and perquisites are offered. The federal government now spends annually on “R” and “D” (research and development) about sixteen billion dollars: of this 90 per cent or more is for “development,” which is all military, and a good part of the remaining 10 per cent, ostensibly for research, supports paramilitary activities. Money is, of course, not the whole story. Senators, Congressmen, and other government officials now are almost all science minded. They have become voguishly knowledgeable in natural philosophy: coronary occlusion, the Van Allen Belt, ballistics, the psychoneurosis called space travel, computers, the eight-fold way, anti-matter. Scientists sit at high table. They are advisers to presidents. Prizes and medals are conferred on them on the White House lawn. They counsel on war and peace, husbandry and education, the budget and the national economy, health and happiness and death. Science is important.

That it has become both a cult and a national crusade is by no means entirely due to wide recognition of its merits. Its spectacular rise is also due in part to the Russians with whom we compete and whom we feel compelled to beat at any game from basketball to lunacy; in part to scientists themselves, many of whom have learned even faster than Fanny Hill how to prosper in the city and have fun while learning. First, however, was the age of innocence.

In 1945 scientists had their initiation into real politics. The Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives reported out a bill for the control of atomic energy. Drafted in the War Department, it was designed to give control to the military. Many scientists knew only too well what this meant. During the war years they lived under the military and experienced innumerable stultifying restrictions. They were told where to work and what to do; they were subjected to stringent secrecy regulations and senselessly compartmentalized. When an influential group of scientists strongly advised against the Hiroshima drop, their plea was spurned. Now that the war was over they had another chance to promote the constructive uses of atomic energy, a cause which they felt would be jeopardized if decision rested with the military.

Quickly, groups of scientists formed in different parts of the country composed of men who had worked on making the bomb, as well as others. Representatives of these groups were sent to Washington to lobby. Physicists, biologists, mathematicians, chemists; Ph.D.s suckled at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, veterans of the famous squash court experiment at Stagg Field, preeminent investigators—all banded together to form a highly effective propaganda force. They talked with reporters, columnists, civil servants, legislators. They held meetings and gave lectures. They testified before congressional committees. They took the time not only to explain their objections to the proposed legislation but also to teach the ABCs of nuclear physics and technology so that members of Congress might at least faintly grasp what they were talking about and what they were being asked to decide. The scientists warned, even threatened. If, some of them said, atomic energy is handed over to the military, we will abandon physics, turn to other studies. (The late Leo Szilard, in fact, took just this course; he had had enough.) Persistent, ingenious, dedicated, and bold, the scientists were uncommonly effective. They contributed significantly to the repudiation of the May-Johnson bill and to the adoption of the McMahon Act which placed atomic development under a civilian commission. On the political battlefield it was the scientists’ finest hour. Not since have they in public affairs achieved a comparable solidarity of purpose or of action.

But now historical circumstance perpetrated a characteristic irony. Even before the scientists could return to their peacetime jobs of teaching and research, the cold war began. The build-up of immense stocks of fissionable materials, the elaboration of atomic weapons, the development of rockets and missiles, the pursuit of every phase of military research from chemical to biological warfare—these activities were regarded as the first order of business. The Babylonians were coming. The nations’ magicians were needed to stop them.

There was, however, another factor which shaped the course of science over the past twenty years, and which made scientists more dependent than ever before on politicians. With the release of atomic energy a new world of physics was opened, a world which scientists were eager to explore. But the costs of the exploration, it was clear, would be very high. It is a paradox of science that the study of the tiniest particles of matter requires gigantic machines and immense pulses of energy; to open the smallest and most compact of all nuts, the nucleus of the atom, one uses a monstrous nut-cracker. If the grand theories of Planck, Einstein, Dirac, Schroedinger, Bohr and company were to be tested and widened, if what formerly were only gedächtnis Experimente were now to be carried out, an almost endless variety of new machines and products, of rare materials, of specialized laboratories were needed. Science, in short, had to become dinosauric.

In this transformation there were separate aims at work; yet, though separate—and even, in a sense, at cross-purposes—they had a plane of intersection. The politicians wanted weapons, the scientists money. The politicians were interested in “defense”: the scientists in knowledge. Both sides got what they wanted, but science itself got the worse of the bargain.

Science has been slanted and corrupted by federal support; scientists have lost their independence; education has suffered. It has always been difficult to draw a sharp line between science and technology; indeed, it has not always been desirable to do so. In the evolution of science and technology there are many examples of technology laying the foundations for future advances of scientific knowledge. But today it is both desirable to draw a line somewhere and harder than ever to do so. The practitioners of science are much to blame for this difficulty. For so long have they been trying both to please and to deceive their employers that they are themselves befuddled and scarcely able to make disinterested judgments. We may take it for granted that government subsidies will not be lavished on research in the music of the spheres or the architecture of the universe. When politicians decide to give away money, they mean to get value in return and pure knowledge does not fit their notion of the best value. Scientists are of course well aware of this attitude, but they have had something going for them ever since Faraday is said to have made his famous reply to a Parliamentary enquiry about the use of electricity: “Of what use is a new-born baby?” Einstein dreaming away in the patent office in Berne changed the world; any theory, however wild, however impractical when conceived, might do the same. It might even grow up to be a weapon. This was the scientists’ pitch to the politicians, and it worked, but only up to a point.

Some goods, after all, must be delivered, some big bangs must come off. Thus when scientists study fusion and fission and the gyrations of particles at government expense—and almost all such activities are today federally subsidized—a practical, preferably a military, objective is what the benefactors have in mind. Research on the upper atmosphere is encouraged because it will provide information pertinent, among others, to rocket propulsion and space flight. Computer design and manufacture enjoy federal support because these engines are now regarded as indispensable to a wide range of military and space stunts. Even social studies—economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history—are permitted to drink at the public trough when the programs are thought to be “in the national interest” or to strengthen our “defense posture.”

Besides warping science itself by channeling it towards special objectives, federal subsidies have distorted the educational system. Heavy emphasis is laid on some subjects, while others are scanted: why should the Defense Department be interested in medieval poetry or the language of the Hittites? The need for science teachers in the higher schools is growing, but teaching is less attractive than it used to be because it is less remunerative and less likely to lead to promotion than research under a government contract. Few universities can resist entering the competition for federal funds. But once having entered they must abide by the rules of the game, yield to its pressures, adopt its values. With funds abounding for projects in every field of learning, as Gerard Piel recently observed, “the university campus has come to harbor a new kind of condottieri, mercenaries of science and scholarship hooded with doctorates and ready for hire on studies to contract specification.”*

Most scientists in the system are its captives. Their prestige, status, and security depend on it. Discrimination has been blunted. At the highest level of the system we find the exclusive group of savants officiels. Their outlook recalls Gilbert’s lines:

But the privilege and pleasure
That we treasure beyond measure
Is to run on little errands for the
Ministers of State.

Occasionally, to be sure, there is soulsearching, a self-conscious pondering of questions of “social responsibility”; but these twinges rarely persist and are usually effaced by a platitude to the effect that while the scientist pursues knowledge for its own sake, responsibility for its use or misuse rests with others. The shoemaker, it is true, is not bound to consider who wears the shoes he makes, and the physician who splinted Booth’s leg did no more than his duty: but a scientist on the federal payroll who excuses himself in this vein is not much better than a storekeeper who sells dynamite to the village idiot.

These are among the matters I had hoped Wiesner might consider in his book. Dr. Wiesner, now Dean of the School of Science at M.I.T. served under President Kennedy as special assistant for science and technology. Kennedy admired and trusted him, which for anyone who has ever dealt with Wiesner is easy to understand. He is a clear thinker and writer, adept at finding his way through a technical tangle, a moderate, modest, and sympathetic man, honest in his feeling for human beings as well as science. No doubt he was a good influence on Kennedy, especially in such matters as establishing the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and bringing reason to White House discussions of the dangers of nuclear war. Kennedy once told a reporter “that the most important thing [Wiesner] did for him, as Adviser, was to keep the government from going all the way.” This is no small thing.

The volume consists of papers, almost all of which were written during Wiesner’s tenure as Kennedy’s adviser, and previously published. One group deals with the relationship between science and politics, another with science and education, a third with disarmament. His views on disarmament and on the scandalous waste of human effort and materials on arms are informative and enlightened. Especially noteworthy is the article on the nuclear test ban which Wiesner and Herbert F. York wrote for Scientific American last year. Though he has gone further than almost any other scientist versed in disarmament affairs in urging concessions in this sphere, he is convinced it is both prudent and desirable, on the basis of what we already know about U.S.S.R. military forces and our “unilateral intelligence capabilities,” to relax our proposals even more, particularly in respect to inspection requirements.

Most of the other papers I find much less helpful. They deal with such topics as federal research policies, the allocation of government funds among different science objectives, the advisability of a comprehensive federal education program, shortages of trained scientists and engineers. Wiesner has perceptive insights into questions of education, waste of funds, choices in the use of national resources. It is not what he says but rather what he doesn’t say that troubles me. He takes for granted the need for massive federal support of scientific research. He is not seriously concerned over the bigness of science. He sees in it no threat to science or scientists. He gives little thought either to the grandiosity which now possesses different parts of the scientific community (physicists show it more because their tastes are so expensive, but scientists in other branches are similarly afflicted) or to the prevalent belief that money is the root of all progress: if only enough of it were made available, a host of fundamental questions would yield quickly to a solution. (This fervor, it should be noted, has been matched and abetted by not a few members of Congress, some of them quickened by pork barrel prospects and considerations of regional advantage. Others dazzled by the New Atlantis, are anxious to demonstrate their foresightedness by insisting on increasing rather than cutting certain departmental budgets for research and development—a generosity for which there is ample precedent in appropriations for such favorites as bomber programs and the F.B.I.)

The obvious downgrading and decline of science teaching in universities, and the subversion of their independence by contracts with the Federal Government do not alarm Wiesner. In view of his career and commitments one would not expect him to be a Cassandra about the engagement between science and government but one might have expected at least a few misgivings and doubts, uncertainty, for example, as to whether we need more Ph.Ds in engineering and science, rather than how best and quickest to train them; or as to the wisdom of a huge federal contribution to research rather than merely contriving the best formula for annually increasing the contribution.

The relationship between science and the Federal Government is unhealthy and the ills I have pointed to are getting worse. They are not in the long run self-curing, and they require much more honesty, candor, and disinterested thought than either the scientific community or the government has been willing to devote to them. That science needs some measure of federal support is certain. It is no less certain that to use federal funds to turn science into little more than an instrument for the continuation of politics by other means is to debase and degrade it.

  1. *

    Dael Wolfle’s article “The Support of Science in the U.S.”, in the July issue of Scientific American is very useful in its discussion of the relation of federal aid to Universities and university scientists, as well as in providing data on other problems considered in this review.