The 1974 Caltech commencement is remembered for Richard Feynman's famous address, "Cargo cult science." He told of south seas islanders who, during World War II, were exposed to a sudden influx of goods and wealth, courtesy of the Allied Armed Forces. After the war, when the goods just as suddenly disappeared, "cargo cults" of islanders began imitating the rituals surrounding the influx of goods during the war. They set up fires along the runways. They built bamboo control towers with radio operators handling imaginary radio traffic and waited for more goodies to arrive from the sky. They got all the superficial appearances correct, yet the planes didn't land.
There are some modern parallels to the magic of the cargo cults. World War II and the cold war that followed it fueled a 50-year boom for science and technology that included the space race and spanned the entire careers of most living scientists. Now the cold war threat is gone, and our government no longer feels compelled to spend vast sums to close the missile gap, the space gap, or whatever gaps it worries about. So now we see scientists whining in the journals about "the present climate of budget cutting in Washington," and a coalition of 23 scientific organizations calling for a 7% across-the-board increase in research funding for fiscal 1998, as though we were experiencing some kind of temporary political aberration. As though cold war levels of funding for science might miraculously return, if only the politicians would come to their senses! Like the cargo cults, they don't understand the underlying cause of their predicament: The cold war was the aberration, a funding "bump" for many branches of science.
World War II and the cold war that followed it fueled a 50-year boom for science and technology that included the space race and spanned the entire careers of most living scientists.
With the Science Gravy Train coming to the end of its line, its passengers are falling over each other to find other rationalizations for their craft. In cargo-cult fashion, new threats to national security are created to perpetuate a cold-war mentality (the "war on drugs") and to justify scientific programs ("the asteroids are coming"). Such schemes prey upon our fears and go unchallenged because, in an environment of scarce funding, it is more difficult to apply critical, skeptical, scientific thinking to the source of one's own livelihood. Good science tends to be defined as "science that someone will pay for."
In an environment of scarce funding, it is more difficult to apply critical, skeptical, scientific thinking to the source of one's own livelihood.
Feynman used the cargo-cult parable to point out certain practices in science. People go through scientific rituals, employ expensive apparatus, and write their journal papers, but when you examine carefully what they're doing, you sometimes find that they've really been fooling themselves. They have set out to produce a certain result, or they forget to ask certain critical questions about what they're doing or why. Or they may even find that questions about the premises underlying their research are forbidden by those who pay for it, and that certain results are deemed unacceptable in advance. When this happens, scientists are just being used. Feynman called this cargo cult science because people are just imitating scientific behavior. An example is industry-sponsored "research" on the health effects of tobacco. Sometimes the consequences are disastrous, as in the Challenger explosion. How much post-cold-war science has this flavor to it?
The US scientific community is responding to the shrinking budget pie by doing some soul-searching. As the NSF National Science Board report U.S. Science and Engineering in a Changing World put it: "The research and education institutions comprising the U.S. Science and Engineering enterprise must now reassess and redefine their roles and objectives for a new era, one no longer driven by the defense imperatives that shaped their evolution." And the National Research Council is conducting a new survey on the value of physics to society. The survey, called "Physics in the New Era," is supposed to come up with a strategy to deal with a new environment "beset by shrinking funds for basic research in government and industry, by more complex and costly research instruments and facilities, and by fears that fewer students would choose physics for their life's work."
The US scientific community is responding to the shrinking budget pie by doing some soul-searching.
Unfortunately, these introspective efforts fall far short of grasping the full magnitude and significance of the problem, and they minimize the responsibility the scientific community itself bears for dealing with it. In early drafts of the NRC study, for example, almost every scientist surveyed ends up advocating beefing up resources for his own field. Don't they think that someone might see through this? Such a survey would almost certainly be dismissed immediately by policymakers and by the public as self-serving. For such a report to be taken seriously, shouldn't its authors bend over backwards to look critically (i.e., scientifically) at the entire US science enterprise and have a plan for real reform? In other words, shouldn't they clearly spell out how science in the New Era will differ from science in the Old Era and what the agents of change might be?
For those of us who have never known a time when it was not relatively easy to make a living doing science, as well as for those just entering the science job market, it is time to ask some hard "nonscientific" questions. Any serious discussion of Science in the New Era ought to ponder at least these:
1. Does our nation require a well defined enemy to justify a strong science program? As long as the Pearl Harbor syndrome continues to shape our views of national security, policymakers will continue to spend our national resources on weapons and other military "solutions" to the world's problems. The problem is with an outdated notion of what constitutes national security. President Eisenhower warned of a "military-industrial complex" that profits by perpetuating a vision of national security that responds to (real or fabricated) physical threats by foreign powers. The cold war itself, along with the post-Sputnik science boom, now seem like mutual escalations of this paranoia.
Does our nation require a well defined enemy to justify a strong science program?
The need for an enemy may be embedded in the national character, but the wisest observers know that the enemy today is us. Could science take the lead toward the next evolutionary step, in which we as a culture can commit significant national resources to the pursuit of knowledge not necessarily driven by external threats?
2. In the absence of a serious external threat to national security, does the proportion of science now funded by the Defense Department make sense? According to Physics Today (Nov. 1996, p. 66), Defense appropriations make up 55% of the Federal R&D budget for fiscal 1997. Carl Sagan (in The Demon-Haunted World) estimates that roughly half of the scientists in the world are employed, at least part-time, by the military. Is the scientific community comfortable with these statistics? If not, what actions can the scientific community take to change them?
Today's real threats to national security have less and less to do with anything the Pentagon does. Crime, economic polarization, environmental decay, a culture permeated by violence, and the failure of our education systems pose far greater threats to national security than any external threat. Might we not be better off investing our science dollars in knowledge that has something to do with our actual national security? And couldn't we trim enough fat from defense research to create many times the desired 7% gain for the non-defense part?
3. What national priorities for a renewed science effort could virtually everyone support as strongly as our response to the perceived cold war threat? What scientific visions could generate the enthusiasm for a renewed national science program that Sputnik did? Where will the eloquent advocates come from to espouse those visions and convince the taxpayers to pay for them? Where will the scientific leaders come from to carry them out?
Today's real threats to national security have less and less to do with anything the Pentagon does.
To get the national science effort back on track, shouldn't the scientific community itself strive to have more influence on who occupies the top policymaking positions in science and technology, such as the directors of national laboratories, those in presidential advisory roles, and those who influence science and technology legislation? We want proven leaders with scientific vision, not bureaucrats and political cronies. The NAS/NAE and the professional societies could, by calling upon the scientific community at large, take a proactive role in identifying the leaders and visionaries of tomorrow's science community.
4. Has "cold war science" soured the public's taste for science and its benefits for humanity? The public regards science with an ambivalent combination of cynicism and awe. The Strangelovian science that supported US and Soviet cold war policies ("mutually assured destruction," etc.) still looms in the public's minds as an example of science gone berserk. Deadly pollution accidents and the impact of technology on the environment are easy to blame on science. Yet the public continues to lap up its technological benefits, and scientists themselves continue to rank among the most trusted, credible, and respected sectors of our society. (Time's last Man of the Year is a scientist.)
This public ambivalence about science is probably a permanent feature of a culture whose science and technology are leaping into the twenty-first century, yet whose ethical and moral equipment for dealing with these advances is stuck in the Middle Ages. Still, the scientific community could do a lot more to increase the general level of scientific literacy, and to demonstrate with its scientific priorities a deeper concern for the public interest.
This public ambivalence about science is probably a permanent feature of a culture whose science and technology are leaping into the twenty-first century, yet whose ethical and moral equipment for dealing with these advances is stuck in the Middle Ages.
5. Does a scarcity of science funding create a more competitive environment among scientists that discourages traditional scientific openness and cooperation? Scientists with whom I used to openly share ideas are now pumping me for free data and information to put into their proposals, while at the same time withholding information about their own discoveries. Scientific meetings have turned into cautious discussions of where the money is. I know scientists who are spending more time writing proposals than on science. Just as sports are no longer about sport, science is becoming less and less about science and more about programmatic alphabet soup. This is what happens when scientists spend more time thinking about survival than about science. The science community needs to look into these tendencies for science to become as competitive and exclusive (and occasionally, greedy) as the business world. What changes in the way science is managed could restore an atmosphere of openness and cooperation in a declining science job market?
6. Does a scarcity of support for science make us take a shorter term view of the payoffs we demand of our science? Does it place less value or credibility on basic research and curiosity-driven science? If so, then the scientific community is not doing its job of convincing those who fund science (ultimately, the public) of the value of long-term, basic, and curiosity-driven research. In making a case for the value of science to society, the scientific community often falls into the trap of listing past examples of high-tech consumer fallout from scientific efforts whose original purpose was something completely unrelated. The public must understand that science is not about non-stick cookware and microwave ovens, but about finding out how nature works. This often requires major long-term, unwavering commitments. Science, like education, is an investment in the future.
7. Does a less secure job environment for scientists make scientists more or less critical of the scientific merit of their own work and of scientific management policies? When I ask scientists why they are doing what they are doing, the answers are often dismaying: "Because my boss told me to; because that is what the sponsor is paying me to do; this is the only thing I could get funding for." Questioning a project's scientific purpose, goals, and procedures is increasingly suppressed, for fear of "biting the hand that feeds us." More cargo-cult science! Is the critical, skeptical thinking that lies at the very heart of scientific inquiry being bred out of the institutionalized science being done today? Left alone, such a trend could cripple scientific inquiry.
Is the critical, skeptical thinking that lies at the very heart of scientific inquiry being bred out of the institutionalized science being done today?
8. Would you encourage your child to pursue a career in science? If capable children are discouraged from pursuing careers in science, because it is no longer a viable profession, the future of science itself is in jeopardy. If you want your kids to go into science, they ought to believe that (a) such a career would be rewarding, not frustrating, and (b) that they would stand some chance of making a reasonable living doing what they are trained to do. In the New Era, both are likely to be true only if you're a very good scientist. We may be entering an era in which only the very best can make a living doing science -- something like the situation we now have in sports and the arts. That's why it would be a mistake to address fears about a scarcity of adequately trained scientists in the future simply by cranking out more new scientists. What we need is not more scientists, but better scientists.
We may be entering an era in which only the very best can make a living doing science.
While the scientific community clearly needs a better plan to increase the overall science literacy of the public, the emphasis in the scientific community itself should be on quality, not quantity. Serious change is needed in the way we educate our scientists. Set higher standards for Ph.D.s, resist political pressures to "dumb down" scientific curricula, rethink the tenure system, and stop using graduate students for slave labor, for starters. We also need more eloquent advocates for science and more scientists who are also educated in policy, law, economics, ethics, and communication.
Left alone in the post-cold-war setting, Darwinian selection seems to be producing not better science, but better salesmanship. What interventions might alter this outcome? Instead of calling for increased research budgets, scientific leaders might gain more public support by advocating housecleaning measures that would make the US science effort more focused, efficient, and tuned to post-cold-war realities. Our scientific institutions could open themselves to critical inquiry that examines waste and the scientific integrity of their programs. Individually, scientists can learn to recognize cargo cult science when they see it and to question, even at the risk of their own livelihood, programs and institutions that waste resources or discourage (for example, by secrecy) skeptical inquiry. In the New Era, science will have to justify itself, not with doomsday scenarios, but by articulating clear visions that nurture the excitement of discovery that lies within every human being.
Left alone in the post-cold-war setting, Darwinian selection seems to be producing not better science, but better salesmanship.
See also: Science's Survival Strategy - Scientific American, Aug. 97
Frontiers of Illusion - a review of Daniel Sarewitz's book in Scientific American
Unlocking our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, a new report from the House Science Committee.