Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 21st Century

By Homer A. Neal, Tobin L. Smith, and Jennifer B. McCormick
The University of Michigan Press, 2008, 386 pages, cloth $70, paper $30. ISBN-13: 978-0-472-03306-5.

Reviewed by Martin Epstein

This book is intended to be a textbook for an undergraduate or graduate course on science policy.  One of the authors, Homer A. Neal, started teaching a class on national science policy in 1999 and was disappointed to find that there were no books that in his view “outlined the basic elements of national science policy.”  This book certainly fulfills this basic goal and then some.  It is a comprehensive review of the basic enterprise of science, primarily in the U.S., since the end of World War II.  The book has 20 chapters divided into four sections: 1) overview of U.S. science policy, 2) federal partners in the conduct of science, 3) science policy issues in the post-sputnik era, and  4) science policy in an era of increased globalization.  Each of these sections goes well beyond the immediate scope of its title and there are extensive notes and references provided at the end of each chapter.  Consequently, this book is a veritable treasure trove of information and certainly would be a valuable resource for a course on science policy.  It is also an interesting read for anyone with an interest in science policy in the United States.

Scientists and students of science policy should find the first section the most interesting since it covers the history of the federal government’s involvement in funding and managing science research and development (R&D) as well as the myriad agencies, panels and committees that have existed and currently exist for this purpose.  In this section are statistics regarding the federal budget, including the amounts allocated for R&D and the roles of the executive and legislative branches in initiating, funding, implementing, and reviewing the effectiveness of science R&D projects.  Detailed descriptions are given of the various offices, committees, agencies, and advisory groups involved in science policy, including a discussion of the central role played by the Office of Management and Budget in determining how much money is given to agencies such as NSF that fund science.  In addition the authors outline the complex legislative process in establishing the budgets for these agencies.

The second section describes the roles played by universities, federal laboratories, and the states in funding, administering, and implementing R&D.  The degree to which these different organizations cooperate and compete with each other is discussed, along with information about the types of R&D they do and the history of how their R&D efforts developed and how funding was provided.  Specific organizations are discussed to illustrate some of the general points made.  The chapter on industry is particularly interesting, especially for those of us who have worked in either universities or government labs and are unfamiliar with what goes on in industrial labs.  The authors note that industry in general has concentrated more recently on applied R&D and less on basic research, with the exception of small startup companies, who rely more on basic research because they are involved in developing radically new products.  There is also a discussion about who really pays for university research, with the implication that major research universities don’t always recover their full research costs from indirect costs in grants and that student tuition supports some of the research. 

The third section deals with large science programs and large problems faced by the scientific community.  There is an interesting chapter on science for national defense, which describes the enormous scope, diversity and impact of R&D carried out by the Department of Defense (DoD) and for DoD by national labs and by universities.  There is a discussion of conflicts that arise in academia with scientists doing R&D for DoD, along with examples of what seem like unusual projects for DoD to fund, such as a large breast cancer research program.  Another chapter in this section deals with large science projects with examples from physics, space science and biology.  Except for the discussion on the human genome project most of the examples given are of failures of large projects like the superconducting supercollider.  The authors believe that large science projects are often a bad way to train graduate students but they also point out the need for stable long term funding for such projects.  Other chapters in this section review scientific infrastructure, science ethics and education for science professionals.  The chapter on education reviews whether we actually need to train more people in science and also endorses professional MS degrees in science-based majors.

The fourth section reviews science policy now and in the future.  There are chapters on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce and the question of whether we really need more STEM professionals; the impact of globalization on science policy and the increased competition with other countries for science professionals; the impact of science on homeland security and conversely the impact of homeland security initiatives  on scientific progress due to security concerns about   STEM individuals; and the dissemination of certain scientific research.  The remaining two chapters give the authors’ thoughts about what the future brings in terms of important scientific questions and what science policy should be like.

Clearly this book covers a broad range of topics and does an excellent job of  “narrowing the chasm that divides policymakers and scientists, by educating policymakers about science and improving scientists’ understanding of how policies are formed and implemented."  However, it suffers from an almost exclusive focus on physics and biology, particularly when giving specific examples to illustrate more general points.  There is also an understandable bias in favor of the importance and virtues of science.  For example, in the last section the authors write: “A strong and vibrant science and engineering workforce is vital to America’s economic stability well as our quality of life, public health and national security.”  And the authors go on to say that: “Obviously the federal government has a vested interest in ensuring the adequate supply of such (science) professionals.”  While throughout the text the authors present many arguments in support of these statements they pay very little regard to those who might disagree with them.  Consequently, while this book would clearly be an excellent textbook for a course on science policy one might wish to augment it with material that presents cogent arguments about the harm that scientific progress has done and might do to society and why there should be a reduced federal role in the scientific enterprise.

Martin Epstein
California State University, Los Angeles