Some Thoughts on Planning for the Future for American Science

Caroline L. Herzenberg




The investment of time and effort in looking ahead and planning for the future can be a very important one for science and for scientists. Because accomplishing our work takes so long in comparison with that of most other individuals in our society, and because our work as a whole is a cumulative enterprise, it is important for us to examine science policies and future directions. We may also need to revisit past issues, as they may remain and present themselves in new and different frameworks in the future.

Concern for the role of science in society and the future of science has been with us and these topics have been examined in the past since the time of Francis Bacon, with some landmark contributions by J.B.S. Haldane, and, for the case of science in America, Vannevar Bush, whose ideas, presented in Science, the Endless Frontier, are currently being reexamined. This paper is intended as a contribution to the contemporary discussion of the redirection of American science policy from that of the post-Vannevar Bush era.

Science continues, in many respects, to be an endless frontier. Many of Vannevar Bush's ideas have stood the test of time and do not appear seriously flawed. However, the ideas that Vannevar Bush presented do need updating and in some cases significant modification. Most notably, a reconsideration of the broader social context in which science progresses would be desirable in reassessing science policy, particularly considering the enormous impact of science on our society and the critical ability of science and technology policy to leverage social action.


Science and reason

Science results and is constituted from the application of reason to the world around us. At present, science is the discipline in which reason has the freest play. Since the Enlightenment, there has been consideration that in the future this aspect of science may be expected to further rationalize other disciplines and areas of human activity. Science has greatly influenced public policies and programs in the United States, but has not led to the developments of the types anticipated by American progressive thinkers like John Dewey, who expressed the hope that the operation of cooperative intelligence as displayed in science could be a working model for the union of freedom and authority which might be applicable to political and other activities. Attempts to deploy the cooperative intelligence of science as a model for rationalizing the development of other areas of culture, economics, politics, and society have not achieved comparable success, and have elicited considerable antagonism. Science has not become the prototype for all human common action. However, use of scientific approaches and methodology within the present domain of the sciences continues to be widely accepted.



Problem solving with science

Science is of intrinsic importance in advancing our understanding of the natural world. It is also a superb method for problem solving for society. In looking at the future of science, we therefore need to address questions such as those recently put to the scientific community by Rep. Vernon Ehlers:

What are the most important intellectual challenges rising over the scientific horizon in the next half century? What will be the biggest problems facing our nation and our planet in the future, and how can science and technology help overcome or avoid them? What should our scientific and technological enterprise strive to be 10, 20, or 50 years from now? And what changes do we need to make in our present system in order to get there?

The scope of the present paper, however, is much more limited. In the politically and socially conservative society in which we live at present, the possibility of immediate or radical restructuring of the research and development system seems unlikely and perhaps undesirable. In any consideration of the reorganization of science policy, we must be careful to avoid the danger of the reorganization destroying those very characteristics (such as originality and spontaneity, independence of thought, and the open sharing of knowledge) which are essential to the progress of science. However, there are modifications of the present system which could go a great deal of the way toward improving the scientific enterprise and the contributions of science to societal goals and problem solving.


Attitudes toward science

Science is receiving a mixed report card from the rest of our society. While there is substantial support for science today, there have also been unmistakeable demonstrations of science's unpopularity. A mainline example, particularly painful for high energy physicists, was the demise of the Superconducting Supercollider. An entirely different take on the unpopularity of science and technology has appeared in the manifesto of the Unabomber. And even the distinguished literary intellectual and politician Vaclav Havel is quoted as stating that "technical civilization.....has reached the limit of its potential, the point beyond which the abyss begins".

At different times and locations and among different segments of the populace, science has elicited hostility; during this century, notably because science has been identified in the public mind with the carnage of wars and the threat of future wars. Science has also acquired unpopularity because it has been instrumental in the development of a civilian technology that systematically widens the gulf between the rich and the poor. A contributing reason for the recent qualified reception of science is the perception that science commonly has the effect of providing technological conveniences for the rich more frequently than contributing to the provision of necessities for the poor. Physicist Freeman Dyson has commented astutely on this:

During the last forty years, the strongest efforts in pure science have been concentrated in highly esoteric fields remote from contact with everyday problems. Such efforts are unlikely to do harm, or to do good, either to the rich or to the poor. At the same time, the strongest efforts in applied science have been concentrated upon market-driven projects, that is to say, projects that are expected to lead quickly to products that can profitably be sold. Since the rich can be expected to pay more than the poor for new products, market-driven applied research will usually result in the invention of toys for the rich. The failure of science to produce benefits for the poor in recent decades is due to two factors working in combination, the pure scientists becoming more detached from the mundane needs of humanity, the applied scientists becoming more attached to immediate profitability.

A further and more intrinsic reason for the chilly reception of science by non-scientists is science's role in the creation of innovations that challenge our current concepts of ethics and morality, particularly in the biomedical sciences. Legitimate fears of the public and ethical issues related to science need to be addressed more fully by scientists.



Science Education and Popularization

As a more and more technological society, we need a scientifically literate and numerate citizenry. Scientific illiteracy can act to impede and hamper the progress of our society. The discouraging results of the performance of U.S. students in the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study may help to alert Americans in regard to the need for improvement in science education in this country.

We as a nation must attend to the renewal of our scientific talent as generations age and others take their place. This will involve interesting and educating a new generation in science, and also removing remaining irrelevant sexist, racist, and other barriers and encouraging inclusion of the diversity of our population in the scientific professions.

We also need understanding friends for science. To help ensure widespread understanding and acceptance of science, we need to improve and extend science education, and support various means of popularization of science, including museums and science in the media. It would be desirable for science to become widely accepted as a legitimate end in itself, not just as a means for enhancing national capabilities for the conduct of military or economic warfare.



Careers in Science: Difficulties and frustruations faced by scientists in the current system of conducting science in the United States

Scientists and scientific workers typically invest many years of education and training into becoming professionals in their fields, and look forward to productive and fulfilling careers in science. However, the National Academy of Sciences has reported that half of Ph.D.s never get into the career they trained for, and at least half of all Ph.D.s end up in nontraditional careers that often underutilize Ph.D. education and training. For a number of years now, new Ph.D.s have experienced great difficulty in locating professional employment past a postdoctoral appointment. These newer generations educated and trained in science but facing underemployment and unemployment should not be lost to the scientific enterprise.

Less frequently recognized is the fact that capable scientists who are already working in scientific careers are also frequently forced out of science. Evidence has been reported that suggests that, in some fields, science career half-lives are now only about a decade. Scientists can involuntarily lose a career in science through various hazards that are built into the science culture, often as a consequence of the interruption of funding; the way that scientists must compete for funding in the United States is in some ways unhealthy to both science and scientists. This involuntary loss of capable scientists from the profession certainly constitutes an enormous waste of talent and money, and a drag upon the progress of science.

While this loss of scientifically educated personnel from the practice of science may have the long range effect of colonizing other professional fields with scientific modes of thought, in the short range it is extremely disruptive of the lives of scientists and of progress in science. Our colleagues in science are too valuable to society for them to be subjected to casual economic triage: efforts should be made to prevent the loss of both beginning and career scientists from the profession. Our nation should make the best use of the contemporary surplus of highly educated and trained scientific workers by, if necessary, setting up a contemporary analog for scientists and scientific workers of the WPA, the former federal agency charged with instituting and administering public works in order to relieve national unemployment during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

A further new and undesirable phenomenon relating to scientific careers in this country is that scientific workers are being proletarianized. Many scientific workers (like other wageearners) are being circumstantially forced to accept low salaries, which is certainly undesirable from the point of view of the economic health of the profession. This also will have a longer term effect of postponing the retirement of scientists whose reduced savings from lower incomes will not enable them to retire as early as in the past, thus decreasing the professional opportunities for newly trained scientific workers. Scientific workers are being deprived gradually of their autonomy, and find themselves more and more constrained by management; the administrative intensity level - the ratio of administrators to scientists - seems to have been rising. We must attempt to rethink and redesign the management and administration of science in such a manner that it is not such an inhibiting factor to the conduct of science.


Conserving Science

To help provide for the enduring continuation of robust scientific research in this country, we need to ensure a healthy social, political, and economic environment for the conduct of science. We need an environment that will enable students to pursue studies in science to the extent of their abilities and interests; and, for those with the abilities and the disposition, to be able to look forward to careers in science following completion of their studies. We need an environment that is conducive to the conduct of science and will actively support science so as to enable scientists to engage more productively in research and teaching, without being subjected to unnecessary unproductive peripheral activities such as expending large amounts of time pursuing an inadequate number of grants or being eliminated arbitratily from the scientific workforce. We need to examine how to develop a sustainable science culture.

To promote the health of science, we need to retain to the extent possible an open system of knowledge rather than have it replaced by a property system of knowledge.



Science to what purpose?

In the broader social context in which scientific research takes place, a major aspect of science amounts to the process of acquiring, validating, storing, and distributing human knowledge about the world. We need to make provision for suitable mechanisms in each of these areas.

We need to focus on science for science's sake, as well as for problem solving. Federal science policy should enable both fundamental research to add to humanity's store of knowledge, and applied research addressing human needs. As has been emphasized recently, the proper role of federal science and technology policy is to foster research and development that serve the public interest.



Democratizing science policy

During the past 50 years or so, policy in regard to the direction of science in the United States has been the province largely of government and industry with some funding and direction supplied by foundations. While we live in a political democracy, there has been no democratic mechanism for citizens to have input into the direction of science and technology. While a subset of scientific leaders have been called in to provide advice, few other individuals who might be expected to be affected or who might have different perspectives have been invited to participate in science policymaking. As has been discussed recently, there are a number of problems with exclusively elite, insider approaches to sciency policy making. A more widely participatory approach to science policymaking consistent with democratic principles might contribute to more social responsiveness and social responsibility in science policymaking.

We should engage the citizens who will become beneficiaries of applied research in decisions affecting the future of applied research, not just rely on peer review and elite decisionmaking. Such decisionmaking about future directions of applied scientific research - societal technical problem solving - needs to be made as democratically as possible.

In addition, much more attention needs to be given to coordinate more successfully the autonomy prized by researchers with constraints consequent upon the management of science and science policy decisionmaking.

We have a relatively homogeneous consensual value environment in professional activities within science, and efforts may need to be made to help the culture of science to survive and fluorish within the pluralistic competitive value environment of democratic public policymaking.



Further reflections on science in the U.S. at present

Science appears to be seen by the majority of our citizens as a minor activity, out of the mainstream, and as such, is low on their lists of priorities. We need as a society to address major priority needs while also keeping science visible and viable above non-priority activities such as the exposition and consumption of trivia, and antiscientific trends.

We as a nation need to support science in universities, in industry, and also in national laboratories. Large laboratories are important for cross-fertilization of ideas in interdisciplinary research, and with many scientists in coordinated research, they offer the possibility of developing new specific knowledge rather rapidly, as was done in the case of the Manhattan Project and in the case of NASA's Apollo program.


Some science policy questions/issues for further consideration

We suggest that science policy evaluation and formulation should address the following questions:

• What is/should be the proper role for science and technology policy?

• What types of scientific knowledge should we as a society seek out?

• How should we decide what types of scientific knowledge should be pursued with funding - how should such choices be made?

• By whom should such choices be made? What input should scientists have?

• What role should democratic decision-making have in planning for science and technology policy?

• Who should direct and manage research? What should their guidelines be?

• What mechanisms should we use to apply new scientific knowledge?

• How do/should we decide whether to apply new scientific knowledge (for example, when knowledge is acquired that was not specifically sought out)?

• By whom are these decisions made? What input do/should scientists have?



The future

It is of course a possibility that civilization might collapse in a world-wide disaster, and with it science, but apart from this calamitous outcome, it would appear that science would tend to endure under most known forms of government and economic organization. Competitive nationalism could hardly be expected to forgo the technological advantages, both military and commercial, accruing from scientific research. And capitalist economies, while they may not interact with science and scientists in an optimal manner, may be expected to protect at least some aspects of science and some subset of scientists and scientific workers because of the profitability of new technologies and the products of research. It thus seems highly probable that some manner of practice of science will continue indefinitely. However, the nature of the scientific enterprise in the years ahead is in part being determined here and now, and its specific characteristics will reflect our contemporary actions in this area.



Some Recommendations

A range of useful policy suggestions have been made for science in recent years; we would like to add or emphasize the following recommendations:

• Direct federal science policy for federally funded applied science toward addressing public needs and enhanced social welfare.

• Support policies to enhance openness of research information and freedom of discussion and knowledge.

• Democratize science policy.

• Make science and technology policy developed on behalf of the government both explicit and open for public discussion.

• Expand and improve public science education, both formal and informal.

• Develop young "friends of science," by involving the public and particularly kids in helping participate in science related activities in whatever manners possible.

• Make provision for full employment and utilization of trained scientific workers in scientific and technical fields, by creation of a current analog of a WPA if necessary.

• As job security and adequate continuing research funding are critical to freedom of inquiry in research, support and enhance tenure and make provision for tenured positions in scientific employment where they do not now exist.

• Improve the status and benefits of postdocs and technicians, and support arrangements for temporary and part time faculty to be absorbed into regular faculty status.

• Enhance the social, political, and economic environment in which science is conducted - provide an encouraging and stimulating economic and social environment for the conduct of research.

• Improve and develop a strong infrastructure for the conduct of scientific research and for science education.

• Develop scientific management policies and methods that promote the release of scientists from the frustruation of micromanagement and abusive and inhibiting administrative restrictions.

• Continue to expand human diversity within the science community, especially within the leadership ranks.

• Develop new funding mechanisms for science to minimize wasted time and effort and to achieve greater efficiency.

• Develop longer term funding mechanisms for science both to ensure continuity of research and to contribute to enabling rapid response to new research areas without prolonged delays to obtain funding.

• Make provision for analysis of the consequences of foreseeable new scientific progress and for examination and public discussion of ethical issues that may arise from new technological developments.




In closing, we suggest that the above recommendations be implemented in our present system of scientific and technological enterprise in order to achieve improvements that will contribute to and enhance the capability of the system for advancing knowledge and problem solving for our society in the future.


scifut.nts 24 March 1998 draft


References and Endnotes