For psychiatrist David A. Hamburg, an early interest in biobehavioral aspects of stress and aggression has broadened to embrace many issues in education, health and public policy. After brief stints at Walter Reed Army Institute of Medical Research and as chief of the adult psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, he established the psychiatry department at Stanford University's medical school in 1961. Hamburg left Stan-ford in 1975 to become president of the Institute of Me

February 23, 1987

For psychiatrist David A. Hamburg, an early interest in biobehavioral aspects of stress and aggression has broadened to embrace many issues in education, health and public policy. After brief stints at Walter Reed Army Institute of Medical Research and as chief of the adult psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, he established the psychiatry department at Stanford University's medical school in 1961. Hamburg left Stan-ford in 1975 to become president of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences. In 1980, he moved to Harvard University to set up a new division of health policy research and education.

Since 1983, Hamburg has been president of the Carnegie Corporation, whose philanthropic work traditionally has focused on education and social justice. Under his leadership, the foundation now also addresses such problems as teenage pregnancy and the avoidance of nuclear war. Hamburg has urged universities to study the causes and prevention of violence, including terrorism. His interest in that subject is partly personal: In 1975, he spent 10 weeks in Zaire successfully negotiating the release of four Stanford students who had been taken captive by guerrillas.

Hamburg, who served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1984-85, was interviewed in his Manhattan office January 29 by Tabitha M. Powledge, editor of The Scientist. This is an edited version of their talk.


Q: Can science help find a way to deal with terrorism?
HAMBURG: We need a really careful, systematic, continuing scrutiny of the problem, case by case, episode by episode, trying to look for common themes, for underlying factors, for success and failure.

Carnegie is supporting Admiral Stansfield Turner, the former head of the CIA, who's doing a book with an academic colleague that looks at a series of major terrorism episodes. It tries to give as accurate a description of what happened as possible, and then tries to see if some lessons can be learned about relatively effective ways of coping with different classes of terrorist episodes.

We're also supporting a study of nuclear terrorism, involving a combination of physicists, engineers, weapons specialists, behavioral and social scientists, and people who have government and military experience. They are trying to imagine how a nuclear terrorist episode could occur. Such an event, happily, has not yet occurred. But trying to stretch the limits of anticipation doesn't seem altogether farfetched. On the one hand you hesitate to talk about it, but on the other hand it seems likely, given the fertile imagination of some terrorists and some novelists, that it will be thought about. Some preparation really does seem desirable. So we've been supporting that, in an effort to make, in effect, contingency plans. The reason we got into it is to avoid a confrontation between nuclear powers, especially the superpowers, in the event of some nuclear terrorist episode. One of the main things I'm trying to do in every field in which Carnegie is active is to bring the scientific community together with the policy community.


Q: Can you describe some of Carnegie's work on avoidance of nuclear war, and how scientists are involved?
HAMBURG: I have been struck by the deep concern about nuclear war in the scientific community worldwide, concern that has grown the past decade. And I've been impressed and encouraged by the possibility of stimulating the engagement of leading scientists over a range of fields once they see some tangible possibility for making contributions. Our program has very much relied on that.

When I came here four years ago, the first phase was to approach a number of the great research universities to see whether we could elicit the interest of leading scientists in the problem of avoiding nuclear war. We particularly wanted to get them into a cooperative study of multiple facets of the problem.

The tendency of the scientific community is to think that avoiding nuclear war means arms control. It does in part, but it means quite a lot more than that. It means crisis prevention, it means improving the political relations between hostile powers, it means sensitivity to Third World flash points and so on.

We've tried to put a wider frame around the subject. We have provided, I hope, some stimulation for a number of research universities who have responded to our challenge by fostering the collaborative mode in their universities, and, to some extent, reaching out beyond the university. For example, at Stanford they involve people from Silicon Valley.

The next phase was to try to encourage the participation of some other foundations to provide additional funding. We were lucky in that, particularly with the MacAr-thur Foundation. Then we set out to achieve linkage with the policy world. We have chiefly set up a series of meetings. Policy-makers rely very much on direct personal contact, oral briefings. And those contacts give policymakers a chance to say where they need help, what they'd like to know more about, where they wish the scientific community would explore more deeply.

Beyond broad multipurpose university-based grants, and beyond the linkage program of scientists and policymakers, we have supported work on certain critical issues. One is the consequences of nuclear war, another is the various approaches to crisis prevention, another is the strengthening of arms control, another is the Strategic Defense Initiative.

It seemed important to get independent broad-based scientific studies of the technical feasibility of different forms of SDI, which comes in different shades, colors and formats. So we've done that. The most recent is a study from the American Physical Society which is about to come out. It illustrates a principle I think is important to democratic societies: to have some independent, objective, analytical, not polemical studies of very difficult, complex, controversial issues like SDI.


There's an enormous amount of interest in the policy community in serious, analytical study, the best that the scientific, scholarly community can produce. It's very heartening to see how many policymakers at high levels want to know what is the best available evidence, what are the new ideas, is there something useful that can be done? They're less susceptible to ideological cant than they were a decade or two ago. It's a very worthy kind of activity for some small but nontrivial portion of the scientific community to engage in such interactions.

Q: But sometimes policy people don't seem terribly interested in bringing scientific expertise to bear on policy questions.
HAMBURG: Of course, there are some scientists who are not very good at communicating with policymakers. They've got to be intelligible without being condescending, and there is an art to that. But I would say from our experience, which is chiefly with the legislative branch, that on the whole interest is growing.

Congress is the prime locus for that; there's a marked change compared to 10 years ago. The level of concern is a very important factor. If you're very worried and perplexed and you don't see a way out, then as a policymaker you're more prone to turn to the scientific community and say, "Can you help us?"

Q: So you think the mutual desire is there, and it's a question of inventing structures to make that interaction happen?
HAMBURG: I think that's a very big part of it, inventing ways that are convenient and attractive. Some of the elements I can specify. One is that the policymakers are terribly busy. The reality is you can't expect them to read an enormous tome, or to take a big chunk of time. You've got to make it convenient, accessible, concise.

Now that leads to the next question. Aren't they susceptible to being misled by some clever brief? Yes, they are. And it's therefore very helpful for them to know that some kind of high standard has been involved in vetting what comes to them. It's a question of getting not only an intelligible, but also a credible, synthesis of information that's out there—scattered, typically, over many disciplines and in many places. That's where highly respected organizations become terribly important: the National Academy of Sciences and its various branches, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, major research universities and well-known foundations like Carnegie. It isn't that they mean to be snobbish or elitist, but they need some kind of mechanism to reassure them that the recommendations have been through a tough process of review, and it's not just a clever person selling them a bill of goods.


Q: You've moved into the population area with your experimental pregnancy-prevention program in junior high. What can the hard sciences contribute to the population issue? For example, do we need new forms of contraception?
HAMBURG: I think we do. On the one hand, it's true that we have very good technology for contraception now. I wish we had comparable ways of dealing with cancer. But, nevertheless, there are a couple of reasons why I think improvement is called for. One is to simply widen the array of choices. There is such a vast diversity of cultural attitudes and practices with respect to sexuality that it's very hard to know what will be a widely used contraceptive in any given culture. In developing countries, it is awfully important to have something that is not only cheap but very long-lasting, and preferably reversible. A third factor is to strengthen contraceptive methods men can use. We're about to have a revival of the condom now, for quite different reasons. But most research is obviously focused on women, and I think there's growing interest in having an array of contraceptives more equally distributed between the sexes. There is also a problem about the movement away from contraceptive research by the American pharmaceutical and chemical industry.

Q: What can be done to remove the barriers to contraceptive research? Product liability is one, but low profit potential is another.
HAMBURG: I'd like to see some entity like the Institute of Medicine, nongovernmental but with some real stature, do a policy-oriented study on this question. It should ask where we stand now, whether there is really a shortfall of industry-based research on the problem, what the obstacles are, and how they could be removed. If, worldwide, there is an adequate research response, even though the U.S. response is weak, I wouldn't necessarily be brokenhearted. One problem is that the main markets are in the developing countries and there is so little money there. Yet in a longer-term view, one can't help feeling that those markets might turn out to be formidable. The issue is who can take a long view about getting a return on a research investment.


Q: Carnegie's also working on a long-term project that will, among other things, analyze technology changes that will affect the economy.
HAMBURG: I would like to see a program that would permit an ongoing process of technological assessment of what's on the horizon—something similar to the five-year rallying reassessments based in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and to some degree NSF. They have run downhill somewhat; at least, there isn't the same vigor about pushing them in the federal government that there was earlier. The early ones represented very serious efforts from the Academy, the AAAS and NSF to respond to this challenge, to tell us what's coming down the pike in the next five years. If that art form gets well-developed, we can increasingly relate scientific developments to their social and economic and educational implications.

Q: How good a judge of this is the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment?
HAMBURG: Very good. I'm very high on OTA. To my knowledge, it's the best thing going on in that field at the present time. And it's extraordinary because it hasn't been in existence very long and it was pretty controversial in the beginning. People envisioned all kinds of political degradations that might occur, but, on the contrary, it's maintained very high standards and has provided a model that I would like to see nongovernmental institutions utilize more effectively. Aside from the good work it does, it's fascinating to look at OTA as a piece of institutional innovation.

Q: But when some scientific groups try to predict what their future needs are going to be, they are often accused of being self-serving and always crying for more money.
HAMBURG: That's right. There is a certain amount of criticism, both within the scientific community and outside it, that much of what passes for science policy is not analysis, but a sophisticated self-serving plea for more support. It is really a problem.

When I was president of the Institute of Medicine, I always pushed our study groups to formulate options for policy recommendations in ways that would seem reasonable to their advocates. If you have five options and you choose A as the best, you tend not to state the other four, or to state them very briefly or in a pejorative way. Even scientists are susceptible to that. I pushed very hard, and had a difficult time with it, to get groups to state as fairly and analytically as is humanly possible, the pros and cons of each option. I found that when we did that, it was very well received in Congress. They are so accustomed to people, even scientific groups, telling them what to do that to get what seemed a fair assessment of the assets and limitations of different approaches was very well received. I think we have to discipline ourselves to do that—all the more so if we are advocating large support.


Q: Is science education really badly off?
HAMBURG: Well, you have to differentiate. I don't think science education is badly off in higher education in this country. I'm aware of the argument that too many professors are preoccupied with research and not enough with teaching. There is a problem there, but not a dreadful problem. The other side of that coin is that lots of students get caught up in the excitement of research. There are many benefits to that.

But I do worry very much about elementary and secondary education in this country. Science is looked upon as very hard and boring.

A lot of what we've been working on is trying to address that problem. One way is to connect elementary and secondary education with the national labs and the corporate labs. We're supporting a number of activities like that around the country and I'm very heartened about it. Another area where I begin to see some movement is in bringing girls into math and science. That is a tremendous talent pool. Once we take off cultural constraints and give girls a modicum of encouragement, we can quickly grow an enormously significant talent pool for the sciences. A harder problem is to encourage the minority talent pool. It's there, but there are many more constraints. You have to tackle that in the elementary schools.


Q: The AAAS is about to get a new executive officer. As a former president, what directions would you like to see it move in?
HAMBURG: I really do love the organization, and I think that it's been moving in very constructive directions in recent years. First of all, I would want to build on those existing strengths, and I hope that the new CEO will do that. The great strength of the AAAS is that it goes very broadly across the sciences. It reaches out to the grass roots of the scientific community, and every sector of scientific activity. It's a unifying influence.

Science is the flagship. I'm privileged to have had a hand in the selection of the editor when Philip Abelson retired, and I think Daniel Koshland is doing a very good job. I was sorry that it was economically essential to sell Science 86. That raises a very interesting challenge for the next CEO. What popular education functions can the AAAS serve? If no magazine, then what? A certain gap was left by the sale of the magazine, but it puts the organization in good shape financially to make other investments in science education.

There has also been a steadily growing effort to have a sustained approach to large social problems that have a high technical content. I applaud that. One field is international security and arms control; AAAS could become a major player in that. A newer entry, but one that's going well so far, is population resources and the environment. The idea is to have a guiding committee in each case, which stimulates a variety of activities—in the annual meeting, in special meetings, in publications and convening functions of different kinds, including periodic reports. Science education definitely should be pursued for the long term. AAAS science policy activity has gained a lot of credibility on Capitol Hill. It does advocate steadily growing support for the sciences overall, but it doesn't do so in a mindless way, a kind of ritual incantation.


Q: You've said that in order for science to help solve today's unprecedented human predicaments, it "must transcend its traditional boundaries and achieve a level of mutual understanding, innovation and cooperation among its disciplines rarely achieved in the past." Is science making progress toward that goal?
HAMBURG: I really think so. The OTA is a case in point. Their panels often have some mixture of physical, biological and social scientists. You need a core of people who know a lot about a subject, and concentric circles around that core who work close to the immediate subject, but can readily communicate. Then you need another circle of people who are quite distant, but who can raise questions and challenge familiar assumptions.

I think we've learned a lot about how to communicate across the sciences. I'm not saying that day-in, day-out communication is all that different. But even at the bench level in research, there's more cross talk than there used to be.

Q: Yet it's often said that scientists have never been more focused on their narrow disciplinary concerns.
HAMBURG: It is a paradox, and I think it's correct. In order to make a contribution, you have to dig more and more deeply into a narrow area. Yet there's a great danger of being so preoccupied that you're ignorant even of adjacent areas, let alone more distant ones. All I can say is, I think awareness of the problem is greater now than it ever has been. I hear many more people in different fields talking about how to balance the need to specialize and dig deeply with the need to have some broader interests. The AAAS annual meeting is struggling with that and journals struggle with it. We haven't got the institutional forms very well developed yet.

Popular Now

  1. UC Berkeley Receives CRISPR Patent in Europe
    Daily News UC Berkeley Receives CRISPR Patent in Europe

    The European Patent Office will grant patent rights over the use of CRISPR in all cell types to a University of California team, contrasting with a recent decision in the U.S.

  2. What Budget Cuts Might Mean for US Science
    News Analysis What Budget Cuts Might Mean for US Science

    A look at the historical effects of downsized research funding suggests that the Trump administration’s proposed budget could hit early-career scientists the hardest.  

  3. Opinion: On “The Impact Factor Fallacy”
  4. Unstructured Proteins Help Tardigrades Survive Desiccation
Business Birmingham