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Daniel Greenberg on science, money and politics: A Few Modest Prescriptions for Widening the Path to Politics

by Daniel S. Greenberg

Daniel S. Greenberg
Daniel S. Greenberg
Science finds advantage and claims virtue in its detachment and aloofness from politics. But politics is the medium through which a society decides upon and implements its values and its choices. That the political system frequently goes awry and fails to work to its full potential of beneficial effects is a reason for increased involvement, not withdrawal. And this is especially so for an enterprise that draws heavily on the public purse and radiates powerful effects in all directions and on all things — while denying responsibility for the consequences of its work.

In its retreat into political isolation, science cannot detach itself from relations with the outside world. But increasingly, these relations are with industry seeking profits from academe's scientific strength and prestige, distressingly often to the detriment of scientific integrity and public well-being. Science is too powerful, too potent in its effects on society, and too arcane, to be entrusted to the expanding alliance between a profession that has retreated into a ghetto and the commercial sector, with their shared focus on making money. While this relationship flourishes, a deadening complacency has settled over the institutions that should be protecting and advancing the public interest in science. With rare exceptions the public is satisfied to leave science to the scientists. Politicians put hands on science mainly to get a share for their voters. None of the professional sectors concerned with science are inclined to push for change on their own, and there is little expectation that the necessary correctives to the scientific enterprise will come from within.

But coming from several directions, small impulses for change can reverberate through the various sectors with energizing effects beyond their original strength. The goal should be more involvement of science with politics, rather than less, because more would benefit society by opening science to public view and controversy. More involvement with politics would surely be uncomfortable for science, because it would threaten the reigning combination of support without scrutiny or responsibility. But it would be beneficial for society in its dependence on science, and possibly even helpful for science itself. The aim is to dislodge science from its comfortable ghetto and move it into the rough waters of the political mainstream.

The dearth of scientists in elective public offices is in large part explained by the monastic nature of scientific training and career progress. But it also comes from a scientific culture that derides politics as unclean and debased, ethically distant from the ideals of science. For inspirational purposes, the concept of the role model is central to the culture of science, but in elective politics, role models with scientific credentials are few. The professional societies of science should advance beyond clichs and act on the recognition that participation in the nation's political life is a virtuous activity, good for the nation and good for science - and well worth the support of scientists. The fellowship programs that bring scientists and engineers to staff positions in Congress and elsewhere in Washington are useful but insufficient. Politics would benefit from more office-holding scientists; science would benefit, too.

With that understanding as a starting point, the scientific enterprise should extend help to scientists who dare a plunge into politics. Physicians, lawyers, and schoolteachers apply collective strength to politics through political action committees and other organized efforts. Why not scientists? Latent scientific support for scientists in politics was brought forth by scientists rallying to finance the congressional candidacy of physicist Rush Holt in 1998 and 2000.

In modern America, participation in elective politics is measured in money and efforts to mobilize votes - activities largely shunned by science ever since its one-time, 1964 venture into big-league politics, under the banner of the ad hoc organization Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey. Antiseptic aloofness from elective politics contributes to the marginalized role of scientists in public affairs, as evidenced by their frustrations with the State Department and the compartmentalized presence of scientists in the White House. With the prestige and glamour of presidential staff appointments, the White House scientists serve the presidency. But no one in the know in political Washington is fooled. The president's scientists are peripheral to the political structure of the presidency because science has made itself peripheral to politics.

No amount of sermonizing can compel a flood of mathematicians, physicists and biochemists into seeking elective office. The laboratory is a poor launching pad for politics. However, the prevailing anti-political culture of science encourages the field to stick to the ghetto, and perhaps even to strengthen its walls. In 2000, over half a million holders of PhDs in the natural and physical sciences and in engineering were employed in the US. Only four were members of Congress.

The isolation of science from politics is furthered by traditions that have become entombed in bureaucratic concrete. Consider a small but revealing item, the anachronistic title of the venerable National Science Foundation, an organization whose historic and spiritual significance for science transcends its money-giving capacity. The NSF long ago acquired responsibilities beyond science, expanding into engineering and elementary and high school science education. However, the mandarins of academic basic research scramble to the ramparts at the hint of a title expansion that would accurately reflect the work of the NSF. Their friends in Congress, with little interest in this obscure sectarian strife, find it simplest to leave the name unchanged. Meanwhile, the managers and beneficiaries of NSF express puzzlement and disappointment over the failure of politics to provide the agency with funds that match its expanded responsibilities. On good grounds, they contend that the foundation's entire budget, over $4.5 billion in 2001, could be well spent in any one of the three sectors: science, engineering, or education. By monopolizing the title, the scientists assert a symbolic claim over NSF, but at the cost of truth in labeling and the potential for broadening public and political recognition and the financial fortunes of the foundation.

In the senior echelons of academic science, political vision is blurred by reverence for basic research and outdated anxieties over its political support. The self-designated legatees of Vannevar Bush ominously chant that applied research drives out basic research. But through good times and bad, both the White House and Congress have strongly supported basic research, even during those periodic bouts of political infatuation with technology.

For purposes of prodding science out of its isolation and broadening political and popular support for science, wonders might be achieved through an even more expansive name change: why not make it the National Science, Engineering and Humanities Foundation, with perhaps a nonscientist at its head? The chieftains of science will gag on that proposal as a denial of their place in the sun. Congressional barons, sensitive about maintaining their jurisdictions, will resist loss of authority. The long-deprived humanists will probably fear a trick by the politically suave scientists and their political compatriots. But let's not file away that suggestion in hopes someday of a more favorable environment for reshaping the science wing of the US government.

A first step would be to recognize the beneficial potential of housing science and the humanities under the roof of a single government source of financial support. Nothing is certain in these matters, but the merger might contribute to the intellectual enrichment of both the sciences and the humanities. We might recognize, too, that separate bankrolls do not advance the goal of bringing together the two cultures.

Another beneficial step would be removal of the physical sciences from the chronically dysfunctional Department of Energy, and their resettlement into an independent agency or the well-run NSF. As for the National Institutes of Health, with an annual budget that exceeds $20 billion and continues to rise, the problem is bureaucratic elephantiasis in a government agency that holds a near-monopoly on finance for the biomedical sciences. A breakup of the NIH into several separate government philanthropies for the medical sciences would introduce the vigor of competition into a sector that constantly flagellates itself for scientific conservatism and operational sloth - without correcting either.

These suggested changes would contribute to opening the politics of science to public view and - horror of horrors - political scrutiny and contention. The object isn't more money or less money, though more could conceivably result from bringing science into the political mainstream. The object is to encourage science to bear its responsibilities in a new millennium dominated by the works of science. For over 50 years, the political instincts and talents of science have been heavily focused on a single goal: more money. Now it is time for the people and institutions of science to justify that confidence by stepping out into the unruly world of politics.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a Washington-based journalist and the author of Science, Money and Politics, published in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press. The above is excerpted by permission of the author.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
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