Volume 27, Number 1 January 1998
The letters pages are dedicated to free expression on societal topics of interest to the physics community. As a forum for all physicists we welcome all views, but of course the Forum on Physics and Society does not necessarily endorse any particular view found in these pages. Readers are most heartily invited to respond to letters, comments, or others items in Physics & Society.
Where Nuclear and High Energy Physicists Went Wrong
The pain we nuclear and high energy physicists are now experiencing due to lack of public support is, in my opinion, well deserved! Before World War II, we never even dreamed of the tremendous amount of public money that has come our way over the last 50 years. We soon forgot that this money was given to us not only because of the military applications of nuclear technology, but also in the belief that peaceful applications of it were the key to a bright future for mankind.
Things went well for 25 years, as nuclear power and radiation technologies developed. Their potential environmental impacts were scientifically analyzed to an extent never even approached by any other technology, before or since. The bright new future was coming to fruition. But in the early 1970's, nuclear technology came under attack from a group of scientific illiterates looking for a political battleground, aided by a tiny minority of scientists. Most of the opponents had minimal scientific or technical competence, but were able to distort and reinterpret the environmental science analyses of nuclear technologists so as to drive the public into an insane fear of anything nuclear.
While this was going on, very few of us did anything to defend the technology that was the underlying reason for the support of our science. Most of us didn't spend the few hours required to read the pertinent scientific literature, and often accepted the distorted information given by Media reporters with close ties to the anti-nuclearites. The American Physical Society gave a prestigious award to one of the leaders of the nuclear opposition, and sponsored at least one report that was widely interpreted as concluding that nuclear power is similar environmentally to coal burning--- by any objective standard, coal burning is at least 100 times worse.The hot issue now is radioactive waste disposal, a "mole hill" of a problem that the anti-nuclear-power people and their Media allies have converted into an unclimbable mountain.
How do we justify the support from Society? We point to the knowledge and understanding of nature we have achieved as a contribution to human culture. In a course I have been teaching for non-science majors about the wonders of our universe, class feedback forced me to all but eliminate discussion of quarks and heavy leptons, and start after the first microsecond with protons, neutrons, electrons, and neutrinos. Other parts of the course that are of most interest to us are of minimal interest to the students - and the public. Surely there is no justification here for billions of dollars of public money.
We try to justify our support by the wonderful contributions of condensed matter physics--- they truly have been stupendous But these fields have received only a very minor share of the public money. We who have received the lion's share have contributed virtually nothing to technology for several decades, nor have we done much else of a practical nature for Society. My solution to our present dilemma is to go back to where we went wrong and try to get back on the right track. There are many ways in which we can support nuclear technology --- a lot more of our efforts should be in that area. It may not be "too late", as long as it is not "too little".
Bernard L. Cohen
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
A comment on Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research and the review by Allan Walstad (October 1997):
I do not know any scientist who takes seriously the "linear model" to which Kealey devotes much of his book, but which was not mentioned in the review. Thus much of the book consists of setting up straw men and then demolishing them. This is aided by the failure of the scientific community to address the basic causes of the actual problems we now face. I think we can all agree that politicians do not make the best custodians of support for science, but that hardly justifies the alternative Kealy seems to regard as the only possibility. The basic problem which needs to be addressed is that maybe 5% of research pays off commercially, and no method for selecting that 5% is known (other than to MBAs, they think). However, the 5% pay off so well that they make the aggregate enterprise a good investment to society, but not to individual investors unless they are large enough.
So we jump to the conclusion that only the government is large enough! This is the one point where Kealey has a proper criticism, but he fails to analyze all the alternatives. The patent system was designed to deal with this problem, but most patents these days are defensive devices and do not fulfill the original intent of the designers of the patent system. Government clearly has a role here, to set the ground rules. Rewards should of course come to successful commercial developments, but work which contributed to the successes also needs reward according to the value added. There needs to be a mechanism to provide feedback, so the successful 5% steer support to promising areas.
I know of no current work trying to develop infrastructure to promote such a goal, but it seems apparent that without input from the science community the present situation will continue. What might be a possible infrastructure? When a patent is granted, an assessment is made--not necessarily by a government agency--of the contributions to the patent by the open literature, and a corresponding license fee used to finance further research in the corresponding area. This is, at least, an alternative to government financing of research or the low level of support which prevailed before the war iintervened. Support can be based on usefulness to society at large, but only retroactivly. I do not think anyone now knows what level of support is best, and in view of the factors I outlined, I do not think the unaided system now in place can make a proper determination.
For the "hidden hand" to function properly, Adam Smith stated that the market must be supervised so as to be honest. In response to criticism, I fail to see how some provision for rewarding those who have done 90% of the work amounts to a subsidy. Currently the patentee who may have provided less than 10% gets the entire reward. My proposal is intended simply to stimulate thought on practical proposals for minimizing government involvement while making the system work. Understanding the problems with the current patent system is greatly facilitated by actually trying to get a patent and having it respected. I do not claim that my proposal would solve the problem, but I do claim that it is crucial to recognize what the problem really is .
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