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Science Policy Needs Historians

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences published an eight-volume report on the current state and future progress of physics in the United States. Even more wonderful than the achievements and prospects reported there, from the standpoint of the interested layman, is the number of apparently equally worthy projects and opportunities for the consumption of federal funds. The authors of Physics Through the 1990s do not order priorities. They endorse all the worthy proposals put forward by the

By | March 9, 1987

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences published an eight-volume report on the current state and future progress of physics in the United States. Even more wonderful than the achievements and prospects reported there, from the standpoint of the interested layman, is the number of apparently equally worthy projects and opportunities for the consumption of federal funds.

The authors of Physics Through the 1990s do not order priorities. They endorse all the worthy proposals put forward by the many interest groups into which physicists fall. These proposals range in cost from the $6 billion supercollider, which is of central concern to the relatively small and disproportionately powerful brotherhood of high energy physicists, to a doubling over four years of the $280 million that now supports small-group research, which turns out more than 70 percent of the science doctorates in the United States.

As the report avows, physicists cannot order their priorities themselves. The considerations in setting priorities must go beyond the criterion of "cutting-edge research," as the current catchword runs. Among those whose views might profitably be taken into account in formulating national policy for physics and other major sciences are historians and sociologists of science and technology (hereafter "historians" for short).

Twenty or 30 years ago the principal stock in trade of historians of science would have been as useful to the policy-maker as the contribution of scholastic philosophers to the science of ballistics. In the last decade or so, however, historians have been studying the development—and the public relations—of recent science, and some of their results bear upon the formulation of current policy.

This is not to say that the historian has all or any of the answers. A strong grasp of history does not free the grasper from repeating past follies or inventing new ones. It is to say that policy-makers who neglect history place themselves in the positions of infants or savages—deprived of memory or blinkered by myth.

The Supercollider Debate

There are many important matters of U.S. science policy now under discussion—bioengineering, manned space flight, SDI research, and the fate of the Superconducting Supercollider, to name a few. Although historians may have something useful to say about all of them, the debate about the collider is the one to which historians are now particularly prepared to contribute.

The policy arguments about the collider have not always risen above the level of the infantile or savage. Among these is an appeal to humanism. Particle accelerators are today's cathedrals, our religion and philosophy made flesh, particle physicists say; also, we owe it to the Greeks to continue the quest begun by Democritus. There is also an appeal to patriotism: the United States has always dominated experimental particle physics; the award of the 1984 Nobel Prize in physics to Europeans working at a non-American accelerator shows what we can expect without the supercollider.

Finally, particle physicists have raised the possibility of useful social spinoffs. These range from the technological (applied cryogenics) to the vocational (super physicists, trained to solve the unsolvable). These arguments axe reported as they appeared in Physics Today. They may, of course, be reformulated with greater cogency.

The proposal to build the supercollider raises the question of tradeoffs between a single, huge unique facility and many smaller research installations. It poses the alternatives of retaining, at great expense, leadership in a field the United States has long dominated, or of sacrificing national independence by joining the Europeans in collider construction. It presents the novel problem that its planners and designers may all have retired by the time it is built, and that the science it is supposed to produce may then not be at the center of the a dwindling community of particle physicists.

The project lends itself to puffery and misleading public relations. It has uncertain but possibly significant links to the Strategic Defense Initiative as a source of manpower trained, as its projectors say, to do the impossible. It has certain important links to industry, particularly makers of superconducting materials, and it points up the difficulty of estimating the near-term technological spinoff of large scientific and engineering projects.

The Historian's Role

In cutting these knots, policy-makers obviously will find it useful to know something about the history and political economy of accelerators, the rhetoric and reality of previous appeals, the functioning of international laboratories, the community of American particle physicists, the nature of knowledge and experiment in big physics, the historical place of particle physics in the intellectual and institutional structure of physics, the connection with the military, and the track record of promised spinoffs. Many of these matters are under study by historians.

An informed, perceptive and independent historian may be able to distinguish immediate from long-term concerns, organizational evolution from bureaucratic imperialism, public from private interest, perhaps even science from technology, where the parties most immediately involved—the scientists, administrators and politicians— cannot.

There are several forums in which historians of science can influence the policy-making process—congressional subcommittees, committees of the National Research Council and the various professional societies, for example. But we should explore, too, the possibility of a new agency with a mission similar to that of the Science Policy Support Group, recently established in Britain under the chairmanship of the physicist John Ziman. The Support Group intends to act as a broker between researchers and policy-makers, not as a research agency in itself. Such an agency in the United States might come under the patronage of the National Academy of Sciences, with funding, perhaps, from the National Science Foundation. The clients of such an agency might be committees of the National Academy, of the NSF, and of Congress, and, perhaps, professional scientific and engineering societies and industrial organizations.

If it achieved its purpose, this agency would bring relevant results from history and sociology to bear on the ordering of national priorities in science and technology. In matters of such importance, it is not wise to overlook the possible contributions of men and women whose profession it is to analyze the experience of the past.

Heilbron is professor of history, 470 Stephens Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.

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