Date: December 15, 1986
WASHINGTON-Irregular funding and public ignorance are major problems facing scientists today, according to a survey of members of the scientific honor society Sigma Xi. The respondents believe that the distribution of government grants depends largely on "who you know" and that it is difficult for institutions lacking state-of-the-art equipment to obtain funds.
The survey of more than 4,000 scientists in the United States and Canada was conducted by Sigma Xi as part of its centennial celebration. The questionnaire was sent last spring to 10,000 active members of the 115,000-member society, which awards membership based on scientific research achievements.
A bare majority (51 percent) of the respondents are researchers in colleges or universities. Twenty-nine percent work in the private sector, and 15 percent in government labs. More than three-quarters hold doctoral degrees. By discipline, survey respondents mirror the distribution of the entire society: 27 percent from the physical and earth sciences, 26 percent from the biological sciences, 21 percent from engineering, 8 percent from the health sciences, 7 percent each from the social sciences and agriculture, and 5 percent from mathematics and computer sciences. They were split politically, with 39 percent calling themselves conservatives and 37 percent liberals.
The respondents were divided on whether scientists should have the final word on regulating potentially dangerous technology, voting 46 percent in favor of self-regulation and 48 percent against. Executive Director C. Ian Jackson said those results show that "the individual scientist realizes that he or she has no special ability to make the ultimate decision. Most microbiologists would admit that the problem of nuclear energy is probably more complicated than it appears, just as they know the problem of genetic engineering is more complicated than it appears."
However, the respondents were even more uncomfortable with the idea that specific agencies should determine such regulations, voting against it by a two-to-one margin. And they rejected, by a three-to-one margin, the idea that the public could bear the responsibility.
This distrust of non-scientists also was apparent in their opinion about the greatest problems facing the scientific community. Interruption of funding was named by 43 percent, and 42 percent mentioned lack of public understanding of their work. Over-politicization of research ranked third, with 29 percent, followed by lack of inter-disciplinary training, mentioned by 27 percent.
"The survey serves as a morale index, and morale today is poor," said Lewis Branscomb, past president of Sigma Xi who has taken a position at Harvard University after retiring as chief scientist at IBM. "Many scientists feel they have too little control and the government's hand is too strong in shaping the future of science."
Answers to a question on the value of state-of-the-art equipment reflect that loss of control. Although scientists were almost equally divided as to whether the latest equipment is necessary for today's most interesting research, they believe by a two-to-one margin that such equipment is a pre requisite to obtaining research funds even if the researchers are competent and their experimental designs valid.
Nearly four out of five scientists who expressed an opinion feel that allocation of federal funds is biased against non-mainstream proposals. They agree that many agencies are dominated by specific methodological paradigms, and proposals that do not obviously fall within an agency's area of specialization are often turned down.
Sixty-three percent of the respondents believe that getting a grant depends on "who you know." Similarly, 55 percent of the scientists said that government funds and research trends are too closely linked to prevailing political priorities. Only 30 percent disagreed with that assessment.