Volume 25, Number 2 April 1996


APS Statement on Conservation of Helium

The American Physical Society is profoundly concerned about the potential loss of the nation's accumulated helium reserves. Helium is essential for achieving the extremely cold temperatures required by many current and emerging technologies as well as for advanced scientific research. The overall demand for helium has been steadily increasing, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

Although the United States is fortunate in having a greater abundance of this critical element than any other nation, the supply has severe natural limits. Helium is obtained by extraction from natural gas fields. If not extracted, the helium is irretrievably lost to the atmosphere when the gas is burned. For this reason, the federal government prudently established a storage program for helium, but legislation now being considered would dispose of virtually this entire helium store within two decades.

In view of the importance of this unique and irreplaceable natural resource to modern science and technology, the American Physical Society urges that measures be adopted that will both conserve and enhance the nation's helium reserves. Failure to do so would not only be wasteful, but would be economically and technologically shortsighted.

Commentary on John Ziman's "Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State"

John Ziman, a distinguished scientist and long-time observer of the research scene, has written several books on the sociology, philosophy, and politics of science. In his recent book Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State (Cambridge University Press, 1994), he identifies his central theme as Rthe profound transformation that is taking place in the institutional arrangements for undertaking research and invention.S

Three hundred years of rapid exponential growth in scientific activity are giving way to a relatively steady state. RThe likely prospect is that science will have to exist for the future within a fixed or slowly growing envelope of resources.S Nevertheless, Rit is expected to contribute increasingly to national prosperity.S Under this pressure, science is becoming Rmore tightly organized, rationalized, and managed.S It is being Rcollectivized,S and this transition Raffects the whole research system, from the everyday details of laboratory life to the politics of national budgets.S The change is bringing with it a new policy language, a Rbuzzword blizzardS of largely management-oriented terminology. Overall, the transition is inevitable and irreversible, but we can reflect on the history of science, identify those features that were essential to its success, and try to preserve them.

This book is fascinating for what it reveals, not so much of science, but of unexamined political and economic assumptions still prevalent among scientists and academics generally. Ziman takes government funding of science as a given, because the market cannot be trusted to allocate resources wisely and, anyway, research now costs so much that only government can pay the bill. The unstated assumptions here are that government is wise and that the high cost of research is not itself the result of government largesse. If science funding were substantially limited to the corporate and philanthropic, billions of dollars and priceless intellectual talent might not be available for space boondoggles, decades of fruitless fusion research, and a fifty-mile-long particle accelerator. Where is the proof that society would be less well served?

Frequently, Ziman undermines his own viewpoint without seeming to notice. For example, he complains that government sponsored research is being pushed toward short-term applicability at the expense of relatively free-wheeling basic research. But that is a standard argument against private industrial research, one of the main reasons why government funding and direction are presumed necessary.

The uncritical attitude toward government is reflected in an uncritical use of language. When he says that science is being Rcollectivized,S Ziman lumps together state collectivism (coercive, tax-based, usual meaning of the word) with large-scale organization and integration of activity (which occurs in a free market). His use of the word RmarketS fails to distinguish between a (free) market in which private parties support the research they choose with their own money, and a RmarketS in which research entities compete for limited government funding. Most bizarrely, he refers to no-strings government largesse as Rlaissez faire!S

Ziman frequently appeals to economics concepts, but it is the sociologistUs dismal caricature of economics where competition thwarts cooperation, private good benefit undermines public good, a Rruthlessly selective market systemS generates Rhuman wastage,S employers shirk supposed non-contractual responsibilities to their employees, nothing matters but cash, and the Rinvisible handS has more thumbs than fingers. Unfortunately, such a perspective is not conducive to appreciating the genuine economic insights that are available regarding major themes in this book.

I offer an instructive example: Times were good for scientists when funding was increasing rapidly. The leveling off of funding (even though the actual amount is higher than before) has produced a situation of Rextreme resource scarcity,S a disruptive, disheartening Rtightening of the financial screwS in which careers are destabilized as research projects are canceled or scaled back. There is a good analogy here to what happens when government artificially inflates the money supply in an economy. The monetary expansion stimulates capital investment and new business ventures at a rate that cannot be maintained. When, inevitably, the inflation must be reined in, there is a painful period of adjustment in which some investments are liquidated.

Similarly, the flood of government funding for science in the decades after World War II created an unrealistic expansionist momentum. The bubble has now burst, and resulting capital liquidations include cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider and the superfluity of many expensive, highly specialized graduate educations.

In the 1920s economists pointed out that without a functioning market system there is no way to calculate how to allocate labor and resources to generate the goods that people want in an industrial society. Government cannot access all the relevant information, and it will choke on the information it does obtain. Bureaucracy proliferates, then rigor mortis sets in. Today, in science, the symptoms of governmental ineptitude are fully apparent in escalating formal accountability requirements--a bureaucratization of science that, as Ziman notes, threatens to stifle progress.

In some passages the economic message seems to have penetrated: REverybody now appreciates the practical impossibility of planning in advance, from a single centre, the routine manufacture of all manner of standard products to meet the foreseeable needs of a nation: it is scarcely credible that this approach could succeed [in science] where every item is novel, where the means of production are uncertain, and where the needs to be met are not even clearly conceived.S

But collectivist imperatives prevail: RThere can be no objection in principle to setting general priorities among the various long-term objectives of a national research system, and allocating resources accordingly.S Such decisions Rarise naturally out of the normal responsibilities of a democratic government towards its tax-paying citizens.S

Prometheus Bound was written before Republican budget-cutters swept into control of Congress. Shall we anticipate a sequel entitled Prometheus Gutted? It would be truer to the myth, if not to reality.

Allan Walstad
Physics Department
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
Johnstown Pennsylvania 15904

Reflections on Our Forum, Physics, and Society

With this issue of Physics & Society, I'm stepping down as editor. It's been an exciting nine years, filled with the thoughts and words of the many contributors to these pages. My heartfelt thanks go to the APS, and to our forum, for allowing me to pursue this task.

I assumed the editor's job in 1987 with a mandate from our forum's Executive Committee to make Physics & Society into more than a newsletter, into a quarterly that would feature researched articles, especially articles based on our invited sessions at APS meetings. Such articles are the backbone of this publication. They expand the audience for these ideas far beyond the attendees at the sessions themselves, to our 5000 forum members and to others who might read these pages. Thus, looking toward the future, it is vital that our forum maintain a series of significant invited sessions, and capture those sessions for the permanent record in these pages.

Physics & Society has also functioned, in its Letters, Reviews, and Commentary sections, as a forum of ideas and opinion. In my view there is a vital need for such an outlet, especially within the physics community. We physicists, accustomed as we are to rigorous evidence, clear proof, and discreet solvable problems, have difficulty when our field bumps up against the blurred outlines of politics, world affairs, philosophical discourse, and feelings. We feel uncomfortable with opinions, especially controversial ones, and most especially ones that seem to reflect unfavorably upon what we regard as our dignity as pure scientists. We feel more secure remaining above the fray.

But it is our forum's mission to try to bring into focus the inherently fuzzy societal and cultural milieu of our science. The Forum on Physics and Society formed 25 years ago within the controversial context of the war in Vietnam, emerging from the protest against that war. We should keep that historical link in mind as we pursue our physics-and-society task, for insofar as we provide a true forum for ideas about the societal impact of physics, we will continue to tread beyond the comfort zone of the "pure" scientist.

Let us not fear to maintain a broad vision and to entertain unpopular ideas, including ideas with which we ourselves disagree. Our forum broadened during the 1970s from concern with a single issue to a concern with war and peace issues generally, and then, during the 1980s, to a concern also with environmental questions as well. Today, we cooperate with newly-emerged forums and other groups to deal with a range of issues that includes education, women, minorities, jobs, the unity of physics, and the future of physics. So long as we maintain the central link to physics, this broadening of outlook is commendable.

In fact, we need to broaden that vision even further. In this time when science is under attack from zealots of all sorts, when the unity of physics is under attack from the forces of narrow specialization that have always operated within our own profession, when the employability of physicists is in deep question, when the physics community is doing such a deplorable job of relating to the public, and when science education is in such a sad state, our forum especially needs the vision to hear all sides, to ask the full range of questions, and to entertain unconventional solutions.

I think for example of such issues as pseudoscience, science and religion, scientific literacy in the United States and the world, anti-intellectual and anti-scientific views, and the rising worldwide influence of fundamentalism and fanaticism. Perhaps even more than such traditional physics-and-society issues as nuclear weapons and the environment, these science-related cultural issues will dominate the coming decades. Scientific methodology, a topic which should be dear to the heart of every scientist, is the unifying thread in all these cultural issues. If Homo sapiens were more willing to follow the evidence, and to use its rational intellect, fanatics and emotionally-based views would not today be causing the immense misery and environmental destruction that they are causing. The fundamental contradiction of the scientific age might be the one between our eager embrace of the technological fruits of science, and our lazy rejection of the ways of thinking that made it all possible.

A cautionary note: In dealing with such topics, we must take care not to indulge in a kind of scientific zealotry ourselves. It is all too easy to quickly dismiss views that we regard as non-scientific, without seriously examining those views or the reasons for their existence.

There is an analogy here with the mistakes of nuclear power. Many nuclear power enthusiasts have historically been quick to dismiss non-expert views as technically flawed, naive, ignorant, or worse. Besides being terrible public relations, such a cult of expertise is intellectually mistaken. The fact is that there are no real authorities on an issue of such broad significance as nuclear power, for the same reason that there are no authorities on say love, or war. One can be an expert on, at most, a relatively small piece of the puzzle. It can be argued that the demise of nuclear power during the past two decades has had a lot to do with the inability of nuclear power proponents to really listen to disagreeable opinions, and to consider nuclear power within a sufficiently broad societal context.

Let not physics go the same way. I am certainly not arguing here that we give any intellectual quarter to, say, pseudoscience. What I am arguing is that we listen, and listen sympathetically, to pseudoscientists and others with whom we might have fundamental disagreements. Most importantly, we must be quick to admit our own mistakes, and to set about correcting them. We have paid gross inattention to the education of the non-scientists such as lawyers, teachers, reporters, and businesspeople who determine the shape of both our society and our science. We have been too quick to escape the classroom for our laboratories. We have paid insufficient attention to the social uses of our science, making the lazy argument that those uses are not really part and parcel of our supposedly value-free science. We have succumbed to the many pressures to over-specialize, to focus on one narrow question and so attain the coveted title of "expert." The exclusivity of our focus is destroying not only the unity of physics, but physics itself.

We must descend from our towers of expertise and enter more fully into the messy and controversial world of social impact and cultural context. This challenge is the purpose behind our forum, but it is not only for our forum. In fact, if the physics community in general cannot rise to this challenge then I fear for the future of our beautiful subject. Still more generally, if science itself cannot rise across the board to this challenge, than I fear for science itself, and thus for society.

Art Hobson