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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Spring 2003
Volume 56, Number 1
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
What Limits Should be Placed on Biomedical Research?
The Politics of Hope and the Politics of Fear
A New Executive Order on Secrecy Policy
North Korea's Missiles
Nuclear Dangers Beyond Iraq
Progress Towards a National Initiative for Information Technology
Science, Public Enterprise and Scientific American

Science, Public Enterprise and Scientific American

by Gerard Piel

The following article is an excerpt reprinted from Gerald Piel's book: The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century, published by Basic Books in 2001.

Purchase of the product

Since 1945, the outlay on the promise of product from science-weapons and pharmaceuticals, in particular-has mounted to a cumulative total approaching $500 billion in 1990 dollars. In the first flush of postwar enthusiasm and rising appropriations, the granting agencies of the federal military and para-military and health departments construed their missions broadly to cover the most remotely relevant enterprises in fundamental research. Since 1970, funding from those sources has been going to ever more narrowly construed "mission-oriented" projects. It has gone to support projects, not scientists, and for the short term, not for the long term of sustained scientific inquiry.

Until the 1980s, the National Science Foundation disbursed less than 7 percent of the annual federal expenditure for science. Its budget climbed then into the billion-dollar range after it was charged to install "institutes" for the promotion of U.S. "industrial competitiveness" in the universities. The agency otherwise has managed to grant half the applications approved by peer review a quarter of the funding requested.

Public expenditure on product from science meanwhile got its money's full worth. U.S. industrial supremacy is owing, in no small respect, to the high technology purchased incidental to the country's expenditure of $18.7 trillion (1996 dollars) on its military establishment over the long course of the Cold War arms race.

In the settling of federal "science policy," the universities and the scientific community have their complicity. They did not seize the opportunity for public education in science represented by the proper argument for the outlay of $500 billion of public funding. They went along with the case for utility and its ready appeal to Congress.

Freely motivated inquiry

Federal funding has been directed, in consequence, to less than the full spectrum of freely motivated scientific enterprise. In this respect, it is notable that the plant sciences-not of interest to the defense or health department-withered in all but the few universities where botany was well and restrictedly endowed.

On the sheer volume of the funding, on the other hand, science in the U.S. has flourished. So the Nobel prize scoreboard testifies year after year. Yet, after half a century, the federal commitment to the support of science amounts to no more than a small fraction of the government's annual expenditures for the purchase of science. Presently, this funding, along with the rest of the country's investment in human and material resources, is in decline.

That decline has been in part offset, to the greater peril of freely motivated open scientific inquiry, by market-motivated industrial financing. The intrusion of the market compromises work in the life sciences especially. Whole university medical-school departments now operate as subsidiaries of pharmaceutical companies. They are generously funded under agreements that induce or compel restraint on publication and the open communication that is the life of competitive collaboration in science. Intellectual property formerly deeded to the community is now private property. The choice of question to be investigated turns on the movement of NASDAQ exchange. The ablest scientists-in particular young scientists framing their first venture-find it increasingly difficult to do what they really want to do.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN had much to report over those decades on the new technologies that supply public verification of the advance of science. From the first demonstration of the "transistor" at Bell Telephone Laboratories, reported in our pages in 1948, the magazine tracked the solid-state revolution in electronics and its ramifications into every economic activity. The latest editions of the computer chip put millions of transistors and equivalent circuits to work. Now, in accordance with predictions made in 1960 from the data placed in reach of computer analysis by Leontief interindustry tables, ever more powerful computers are downsizing the clerical and middle-management pay-roll.

The computer is only part of the story. With elegant electronic sensors on the input side and electromechanical actuators on the output side of the computer, automatic production increasingly replaces people in the "process" industries. In 1990, the petroleum refining industry employed half as many "production" or blue-collar workers as it did in 1950, while multiplying its output by three. The steel industry reduced its production payroll by half while producing the same ingot tonnage. The percentage of the U.S. labor force employed in production functions declined from more than one-third in 1950 to less than 20 percent in 1990. White-collar professional replaced them.

The flat production of steel between 1950 and 1990-in an economy that multiplied its total output four times-signified another impact of the new physics. Understanding of the structure of matter from the inside displaced and replaced materials in their traditional end uses. By 1960, organic plastics overtook steel in bulk; a decade later, in tonnage. Ceramics reinforced by microscopic carbon fibers-on the ancient model of bricks made with straw-stood up to fiercer heat in turbine blades. The optical-glass fiber-another triumph of the late Bell Telephone Laboratories-began to take over from copper in the communication systems, piping photons in place of electrons.

The habit of consensus

In 1952, a single-topic issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reported on the economic and social consequences of this impending revolution. The reconstruction of the labor force and the declining compensation paid to labor, in white as well as blue collars, now excite political concern for the well-being of the "middle-class," which now means higher-paid wage-earners. This country and the rest of the industrialized world face questions not yet articulated about purpose, value and equity in securing the blessings of the workless economy.

On the questions of the arms race and its control, so much at the center of public concern over all those years, the country is indebted to the consensus-forming habit of the scientific community. This is belied by the mass-media coverage of these issues. The media give equal time to the consensus and to the dissenting maverick and kook, often a spokesperson for an economic interest in the issue. By way of balance, we reserved the pages of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for the consensus.

The lay public, including its representatives in Congress, had independent counsel, therefore, on the arcane technical issues of the arms race and arms control from authorities as fully informed as the official security-cleared "defense intellectuals." Our authors made public record of the ominous transformation of our country's "nuclear deterrent" from retaliatory to first-strike weaponry during the 1960s. They exposed in hard numbers the lunatic stockpiling of tons of nuclear explosives that perpetuate, in the now-prevailing international anarchy, the peril to civilization laid by mutual assured destruction. The publication of these articles in our Russian-language edition, V MIRE NAUKI, shows the consensus-forming habit of the community to be international.

Beginning with an article on the Amazon frontier in its second issue, the new SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN kept the interlocking determinants of the world future-population, environment and development-under surveillance. I still hope to see recognition in U.S. public policy of the concept, first published in the magazine in 1955, of the "demographic transition," of the transit of the population:

  • from near-zero growth at high death rates and high birth rates and life expectancy of less than 30 years
  • through the population explosion
  • to near-zero growth again at low death rates and low birth rates and life expectancy exceeding 70 years

The 1.25-billion population of the industrialized countries has already arrived at zero growth. If all goes well, every indicator says that the rest of the world population may complete the transition to bring population growth to a halt by the end of the 21st century. The population explosion sustains in public understanding, however, the Malthusian vision of population growth to self-extermination in the war of all against all. That vision continues to determine the foreign policies of nations, including our own.

International conventions now recognize what SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN authors began telling their readers 30 years ago: combustion of fossil fuels exacts the principle cost and peril laid to the environment by industrial civilization. The fourfold multiplication of energy consumption since 1950 has increased the carbon dioxide input from human activity to more than 25 percent of the planetary atmospheric turnover. The next fourfold increase in energy supply necessary to carry the rest of the world population through the demographic transition cannot conceivably be secured from fossil fuels. Alternative primary energy sources-including photovoltaic conversion of solar energy and extraction of solar energy stored in the ocean and not excluding nuclear power-were all appraised for our readers in time to have allayed the present international anxiety. In the words of the British molecular biologist P.B. Medawar, "Problems caused by technology must, by definition, be cured by technology."

Warren Weaver, in the September 1953 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, declared the hope that "the citizens of a free democracy, understanding and prizing the work of science, will provide the support and terms of support that will cause science to prosper and bring its benefits, power and beauty to the service of all the people." As bursar for the sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation from 1932, Weaver had administered the principle fund-a few million dollars a year-that supplemented university science department budgets before the Second World War. That September issue was devoted to "Fundamental Questions in Science." Weaver's concern, shared by the editors, was with the terms on which the large and growing expenditures by the federal government were then flowing to support the work of science in the country's universities. That work, reported by the scientists engaged in it, principally filled the pages of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN and brought readers to those pages.

Gerard Piel was the founder and former publisher of Scientific American and long-time supporter of FAS. He is the author of numerous books and was the recipient of over twenty honorary doctorate degrees and a host of other honors and awards.