It has been just over five years since Frank Press, a geophysicist of international renown and former science adviser to President Jimmy Carter, was installed as 19th president of the National Academy of Sciences. Press came to the presidency of the 1,800-member Academy with an imposing agenda: to revamp the report-writing process of the National Research Council, to cut personnel and overhead costs, to raise private capital for both the Academy endowment and for special projects, and to disseminate the Academy's findings more widely as part of an effort to better educate the public about science. Born in New York City, Press did his undergraduate work at City University and took his Ph.D. in geophysics from Columbia University in 1949. He taught at Columbia and at the California Institute of Technology, and was chairman of the Department of Geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the Carter administration in 1977. He was interviewed September 29 by Tabitha M. Powledge, editor of THE SCIENTIST.
Q: Despite all the federal budget cutting in the past few years, science hasn't been doing too badly in the competition for government funding. Why?
PRESS: In constant dollars the funding of the research universities has increased significantly. However, the new opportunities in science are so many that the return on additional investments could be enormous. So the U.S. scientific community is in a state of stress-even though it is well supported compared to other countries-because it realizes what could be accomplished with additional funding-new instrumentation, postdoctoral fellowships for graduate students, and so on.
Q: Does science have a lot of friends in the administration?
PRESS: Over the past eight to 10 years, both in Congress and the executive branch, science has developed many friends. It used to be that the support of science and research universities was looked upon as a charitable contribution by Congress. Now it is perceived as an important investment to the economic well-being, health and security of the country. The case no longer has to be made on the basis of philanthropy.
Q: But there have been increases in explicit lobbying efforts too, haven't there?
PRESS: The main exception to what I've said is the construction of facilities, buildings, laboratories and so on. We haven't had a national program for laboratories and science buildings since the early '60s. As a result, some universities have used the political pork-barrel route to secure funding directly from Congress, bypassing normal procedures of evaluation. This has raised a great deal of concern because it undermines the competitive evaluation that is responsible for the great success of American science. In addition, the pork-barrel process even by-passes Congress' own evaluation procedures: testimony, hearings, the authorizing committees and so on. When that's done, something is funded that may not be necessary for the national program of science, or may be so weak that it won't receive supporting funds in future years. There are cases where buildings have been built but where the first-class staff couldn't be hired and the projects for support couldn't be acquired. A substantial investment was made and re turned no dividends. That's what we want to avoid.
I should hasten to add that there ought to be a special process for newly emerging institutions, or institutions that want to develop first-class research programs. I would support a national facilities program that would provide two routes to federal support. One would be a national competition and evaluation where money would go to the best ideas, the best people, the highest need, the best record of productivity. Another would offer support to a newly developing institution or a university that wants to enter a field for the first time. They would have to show willingness to make a long-term commitment, to commit local resources, to cost-share. They would qualify as a separate category of organizations trying to achieve excellence where it was not present before.
I think this would be very popular in Congress. Most scientists would not oppose it, because they realize we can't keep providing funds only to the best places. We have to allow for second-tier institutions trying to achieve first-tier status. These programs would be established by Congress, but the evaluation for both the national competition and the special category for developing institutions would be done in a competitive fashion by the funding agencies in the usual sort of way.
Q: What kind of response has that proposal received?
PRESS: I've raised it in congressional testimony and in a few speeches. To have it catch on you have to keep repeating it and talking to a lot of people, which I'm doing. I think it answers everybody's needs. It answers the needs of those congressmen who represent districts that have universities which want to improve. In the national competition they would not succeed, but in the competition for developing institutions they might succeed. It gives them an avenue to facilities based on federal funds, but the typically American concept of supporting the best people, the ones with a proven record of scientific productivity, would still be preserved. In my conversations with universities in both the first and second categories, they seem to think it's a reasonable idea. The funding agencies feel that as long as Congress doesn't micromanage their research programs and tell them specifically what to do, as long as they can use honest evaluation procedures, it's not an unreasonable approach.
Q: How long will it be before that kind of new structure is in place?
PRESS: At the present time, in the Gramm Rudman era, a national facilities program may not be in the offing in the next year or so. But the facilities deficit has built up to such an extent that before the end of the decade we might see a national facilities program once again. Whether or not my proposal (which is, by the way, not an original one; others have discussed it also), whether or not it would be adopted is hard to predict. It should prove popular in Congress for the obvious reason: there's something in it for everybody. But more important than that political statement, it's really in the national interest to support the best people and to allow other institutions to achieve the highest category of excellence.
Q: What about other efforts at lobbying, aside from the pork-barrel approach? I'm thinking particularly of the National Coalition for Science and Technology, which is apparently having rather a rocky time of it. What's your feeling about formal lobbying efforts of this sort?
PRESS: Of course the National Academy of Sciences doesn't lobby in the sense of going to a congressman's office, bringing pressure groups in, and so on. We try to make the case for science when called upon and to do so in a balanced way. Just about every sector in the country is represented by a lobbying group, but scientists have been loath to do that. It's hard to say why. Maybe it's tradition, or maybe they haven't been good at it. The National Coalition represents a concerned effort by a group of scientists to use the political process, the lobbying process, to make the case for science. They are registered lobbyists, and they admit it openly. I think there's room for an organization like that in Washington. That's the way the government works. I'd be sorry to see them go, if that's what happens. If they're not supported, it's not because of lack of need or a lack of appreciation; it's that the scientific and technological community is not used to operating that way. Maybe it's naive, but that's scientists' habit and their culture.
Q: How happy are you with progress in overhauling the National Research Council? You made some structural changes in the NRC about a year after you joined the Academy. Have they had the effects you hoped? Has the report-writing process improved?
PRESS: Well, every new head of an institution has an agenda that reflects his or her own experience and background as well as his or her times. When I came in I had an agenda I tried to implement. Not only did it include structural changes for the National Research Council, which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, but also new programs to reflect our times. One of our highest priorities is the health of American science and technology. I've devoted resources to those areas that I thought were necessary. We've issued some major reports that have influenced the course of chemistry, physics and mathematics, including support of these fields. We're very proud of those, and more that are on the way for the social sciences, for engineering and so on.
The reorganization of the National Research Council reflected a number of things: reducing bureaucracy, reducing indirect costs, but most important making the NRC more responsive to our times. How do you characterize today compared to the past? Barriers between science and technology are being removed; it's now almost a continuous flow. There are new relationships between industry and universities. There's the competitiveness issue of U.S. industry compared to other countries. There's been unprecedented progress in so many different fields of science, with applications that almost know no bounds. How can we accelerate the transfer of knowledge from these rapidly developing fields to where they can do the most good? These are the issues of our times, and these are the emphases that I want to bring to the NRC.
Q: What about the issue of speed? What improvements have there been in how fast the reports are done? When it was announced last spring that the Institute of Medicine and the Academy were going to conduct a joint six-month study of the status of AIDS funding and research, one of the major points was that they were going to get the report out fast. Is it on target?
PRESS: One of my goals was to reduce the time that it takes to do a study. You do realize that these are studies undertaken by volunteers with full-time jobs at other institutions. For them to leave their jobs more than a couple of days a month to work on our studies is unrealistic. They occupy important positions in American science and technology; they are working scientists and they are administrators. There's a limit to how much we can exploit our volunteer panel members. Nevertheless, I have as a goal that most of our reports could be finished within one year. There are certain reports we do on an accelerated track because of national need. If the problem is important enough, like a national strategy for AIDS, I have found it possible to get first-class volunteers to work on that accelerated schedule because they realize the importance of their work. The panel that we have on the space shuttle repair, the solid rocket booster repair, is working on a very fast track. They are very busy people and understand the importance to the country of making that kind of commitment.
We can do, and we have done, accelerated reports when there is national need. We prefer longer deliberation because these are tough issues. The longer a panel sifts through an issue, the more time for analyzing all its aspects. But we try to achieve the goal of one year per report. There are certain kinds of studies that are very complicated, that involve sifting through so much data, or that on occasion require research to be undertaken and analyzed. Those kinds of studies might take two or even three years. When we do that, we know in advance that it will take that long. We tell the sponsors what is required so that nobody is disappointed. We should not have reports that run over their allotted time. I'm very strict about that. When we say the report will be done in a year, most of the time it will be done in a year. If it takes six months, we will make every effort to deliver.
Q: So the AIDS study is on schedule?
PRESS: Yes, it is. It's out this month.
Q: Another area in which you wanted to make some progress is that of incorporating scientific findings more into the policy process. The Academy is taking a more activist used to. It's no longer a question of simply issuing a report.
PRESS: That's one of the main priorities of my own presidency. Each report is examined at the very beginning in terms of dissemination and distribution. We ask ourselves who should know about this report, and how we can reach those people. We've established a large number of techniques to reach those who should know about one of our reports. For example, in the area of creationism and creation science, we published something like 40,000 copies of a report and put one on the desk of every school board chairman in the country.
With reports where there is special congressional interest, we'll arrange for testimony in Congress or invite congressmen to dinners with experts or to a private briefing. In an area of concern to a cabinet officer, before a report is released we take our panel to brief that cabinet officer. Our panel briefed President Reagan on acid rain.
We are paying more attention to the media too. We will have simultaneous press conferences in three or four cities when a major report is issued. We have about 150 newspapers signed up for something called the National Academy Service, which distributes Op-Ed pieces, mostly derived from NRC reports. We have organized a new journal, Issues in Science and Technology, which is supposed to reach policy-makers throughout the country. Certain of our reports are published not only by the National Academy Press, but by commercial publishers for much wider dissemination. A TV show, Planet Earth, was one of the most highly watched series on public television last winter. It won an Emmy last week. We did it in association with WQED in Pittsburgh. The book that came out with the show was a Book-of-the-Month-Club main selection. On top of all of that, some 70,000 school teachers received kits to use in the classroom in conjunction with the show. We're hoping to start a new weekly science and technology program on public television for a national audience.
So we're investing resources and people in dissemination, in reaching targeted audiences. I'm told that a recent poll showed that lots of people know about our studies on diet and health. We want a significant fraction of the American public to know about them. They may not know what the National Academy of Sciences is and what it does, but they know about the content of that report, which shows that it was very widely distributed. A great many of our reports are discussed on the McNeil-Lehrer show and make the network news, more than ever before.
Q: The report on recommended daily allowances of certain nutrients made the network news for a reason you would probably just as soon have avoided: there was an enormous amount of very public disagreement among scientists over those findings.
PRESS: I didn't have that report in mind; what I had in mind was our report on diet and health. The RDA report made the news in a negative way, that's true. But that's all right. It shows the American public that there is uncertainty and controversy in this very difficult area.
Q: Along with your other plans for the Academy, do you have any plans for expanding the membership?
PRESS: We elect some 60 or so new members each year. There is some pressure to expand. There are some members of the Academy who would like to increase that number and some who would not. It's a matter of continuing debate. At the moment, there are no particular plans for expansion. Some 8,000 American scientists and engineers and social scientists serve on panels of the National Research Council, so we have an extended family of individuals in science and technology who help us.
Q: Ground has recently been broken for the new Academies' center on the West Coast. When Arnold Beckman agreed to give you $20 million for the center, he said he deliberately wanted to avoid the Washington bureaucracy. He also wanted to move the Academies into some issues that he thought had been neglected, such as Pacific rim issues, ethical issues in science, and also issues of technology transfer. Yet it appears that the center is going to be run as an outpost of Washington. It isn't going to have a permanent staff, nor any program responsibilities. Why is that?
PRESS: Arnold and Mabel Beckman have done something magnificent for us; they are helping us establish a West Coast conference center. That's important for a number of reasons. There are more members of the Academies in California than any other
state; some 25 percent of our membership. We would have a better California representation on our NRC panels if travel back and forth to Washington wasn't so onerous. The conference center will attract more members of the Academy who reside west of the Rockies, 33 percent of our members. Secondly, California is part of the rim of the Pacific, which represents the most rapid expansion of science and technology and its application in the years ahead. I have in mind Japan, the mini-Japans, and certainly China. The West Coast states of the United States are making major efforts to recognize the commercial and intellectual importance of the Pacific rim, and having a conference center there makes it a natural focus for Pacific issues. It's our intention to have a service staff at the conference center to help organize the mechanics of panel meetings, the audio-visual equipment, the meals, the accommodations and all of that. In addition to Pacific rim concerns, Arnold Beckman has other interests that are natural interests of the Academies, like health, ethical issues in health, the connections between science and technology. Those are priorities in Washington, and those are priorities in California, so there was a resonance there in terms of what we think is important and what he thinks is important.
Q: Another one of your major priorities has been to work hard on science exchanges with other countries. How happy are you with the present state of cooperation and exchanges with the Soviet Union?
PRESS: There are many fields where the Soviet Union does not perform at world 1evels; however, there are key fields of science- theoretical physics, mathematics, certain branches of chemistry, certainly space science-where the Soviets operate at the top. I believe it's in the interest of the United States to work with the Soviets in these fields in cooperative fashion. These are non-strategic areas that have nothing to do with military applications. It's to everyone's ad vantage to know what's going on, and to exchange views and learn from each other. On the other hand, it is very difficult to work well with the Soviets. It's a highly compartmentalized society. Access to their best people is often restricted, especially when it comes to sending their best people abroad, which is sometimes annoying and difficult. And then on top of all of that, there's the human rights issue, which is of concern to most American scientists. We have to take all these factors into account as we try to arrange a program of cooperation with the Soviets.
Q: With respect to the human rights issue, is there something more the Academy can or should be doing, or something more scientists in general can or should be doing to solve that problem?
PRESS: I would say that the level of cooperation we can achieve with the Soviets is definitely limited by the human rights issue, and they know that. Hopefully, the new head of state will be advised by a new generation of scientists who realize that they are really hurting themselves in this foolish restriction of human rights. They are hurting their own science, they are hurting the ability of other countries to cooperate with them, and they will never achieve the level of respectability that they want in world affairs as long as they behave so primitively in the area of human rights.