Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion
How timely, that on the day I began reading this excellent book, in mid-January 2002, the weekly magazine Science News included an article whose headline was “Record Science Budget Evaded Proposed Cuts.”
The 500-word article explained that in April 2001, the Bush administration had requested that Congress significantly reduce nonmilitary science funding (e.g., at NASA and the EPA), but that this intent had been overtaken by the events of September 11. Science was once again a national security issue, as it had been during the Cold War and World War II, and budgets would grow, not shrink. And yet, as Daniel Greenberg demonstrates, the history of scientific funding in the past 60 years has been one of unbroken growth even as the many immediate beneficiaries of this largesse—the research community itself—continued with remarkable success to plead poverty. Greenberg is a very well known “politics of science” observer of 40 years’’standing -- he is the founding editor of the widely-read Science & Government Report—whose iconoclastic insights paint a rather different picture than we are used to seeing of the motivations and politics underlying science funding. It is a picture of the scientific community almost as a primitive tribe, imbued with “magical thinking” (e.g., belief in nonexistent cause and effect relationships in politics) and a mythology rooted in a nearly wistful desire to return to a paradisiacal “golden age” of funding. When was this golden age of scientific funding? In the early 1990s, several noted scientists recalled it as the late 1960s. But various academy reports from that era bemoan tight funding and high unemployment among scientists, and per capita spending on research was at least as high in the 1990s as in the 1960s. Others feel that the “golden age” was in the 1970s, still others the 1980s . . . and so on. The point is: it is never now. Greenberg shows—sometimes with detail and documentation that is exhausting to the reader—that scientific funding as a portion of GDP has stayed steady for decades, that the overall levels of funding have skyrocketed for decades, and that the drumbeat of warnings of a scientist “shortage” that were advanced in the 1970s were based on specious, self serving projections that led to a superabundance of researchers—many “underemployed”—in the subsequent decades. The arguments struck home. Even during the Nixon years, despite that president’s loathing for scientists (all Democrats, and far too many Jews!), federal appropriations for universities increased by about one-third. The technique of cherry-picking statistics became a favored one among science lobbyists in order to keep the money flowing. The Soviets, it was said in the 1980s, had nearly twice as many scientists as the U.S. . . . no mention of the abysmal state of Soviet facilities and equipment, nor the fact that the American community produced far more scientific results than their feared communist counterparts. And so, starting in the mid-1970s the number of universities receiving federal funding for research started to rise rapidly (from 555 to 882 in the 20 years starting in 1975). This, of course, in turn created a larger constituency for grant money, putting the whole process essentially on an exponential growth curve. The problem for science was maintaining its political purity while continuing to ensure budget growth; scientists were supposed to be nonpartisan and non-self-interested purveyors of accurate information, not policymakers. The one time the community as a whole violated this model— organizing on a large scale to campaign against Nixon— it cost them dearly in influence at the highest levels. Since then, the model has been one of lightly-orchestrated pluralism, with the President’s Science Advisor forced to understand that he works for the President, not the research community. The community must cope with the paradox of wanting to influence policy— the better to assure funding on as broad a scale as possible— while remaining apolitical. But it substitutes a money chase for social and political commitment. Probably the most successful organization to play this game has been the National Institutes of Health. Who can be against biomedical research? But in its zeal—and spectacular success—to ensure continually increasing budgetary support for its many mandates, NIH has suffered an increasing number of ethical lapses. How many times per month do we read uncritical newspaper reports about medical discoveries that “may” lead to a cure for cancer, or AIDS, or aging, or any feared malady? And why do those reports seem to fade so reliably into oblivion, once the real process of science— painstaking, with a very high failurerate—begins its slow work? That press-release driven budget lobbying process is a harder one for the physical science community to pull off. The infamous Superconducting Supercollider, now and forever a huge hole in the ground in Waxahatchie, Texas, might ultimately have produced good science. But its benefits were deliberately oversold from day one, and its budget deliberately lowballed by empty promises of foreign support. Because most of the work was being done in only one state, there was no national political constituency for the project when its budget estimates went through the roof, and so the project was canceled. Compare that outcome with the International Space Station, which—with an ultimate cost of over $100 billion (depending on what one counts)—is essentially a grand nation-wide public works project with few discernable scientific benefits. With project money spread over many states, its funding has withstood numerous assaults and its survival is assured. Greenberg relates the detailed history of how such a funding environment came to evolve, starting after World War II, and including the role of the scientific ur-lobbyist himself, Vannevar Bush (whose report “Science: The Endless Frontier” is considered by most to be the seed from which the National Science Foundation sprouted). He documents and decries the ethical deterioration of the scientific process as this happened. And he proposes solutions, including more critical press coverage of scientific developments; a breakup of the NIH into numerous smaller entities; and the removal of oversight of the physical sciences from the bloated and atrociously-managed Department of Energy. Many in the scientific community will take issue with the conclusions that Greenberg draws from the history that he documents. But he knows whereof he speaks, and his vantage point is an untarnished one. This is potentially an important book if it is widely enough read. It is well written (if over-detailed) and tightly argued. It should be part of the curriculum of any modern Science and Society course. Reviewer Dr. Richard Isaacman is an astrophysicist and a writer with over 50 published articles and reviews. Reprinted with permission of BRIDGES: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Theology, Philosophy, History, and Science.