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 …

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