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AAAS's Trivelpiece on Science Support

Nuclear physicist Alvin W Trivelpiece, the new executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, brings to the post experience in academia, industry and government. He received his master's degree and doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, then went on to teach at the University of California at Berkeley (1959-66) and the University of Maryland (1966-76). In 1973-75, on leave from his faculty post, Trivelpiece was assistant director for research in the d

By | April 20, 1987

Nuclear physicist Alvin W Trivelpiece, the new executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, brings to the post experience in academia, industry and government. He received his master's degree and doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, then went on to teach at the University of California at Berkeley (1959-66) and the University of Maryland (1966-76). In 1973-75, on leave from his faculty post, Trivelpiece was assistant director for research in the division of controlled thermonuclear research at the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1976, he became a vice president for engineering and research at Maxwell Labs in San Diego. Two years later he joined Science Applications Inc. in La Jolla, Calif , as corporate vice president. Trivelpiece moved to the Department of Energy in 1981 to serve as assistant secretary for energy research. In that role, he was instrumental in the Reagan administration's decision to support construction of a Superconducting Supercollider (SSC). He also was responsible for DOE'S nonweapon laboratories and for its programs in basic energy research, health and environmental research, high-energy and nuclear physics and magnetic fusion.

Trivelpiece succeeds William D. Carey at the helm of the AAAS, the nation's largest general scientific organization. He was interviewed March 6 at his DOE office by Tabitha M. Powledge, editor of THE SCIENTIST. This is an edited version of their conversation.


Q: Things look very good for U.S. science at the moment, don't they?

TRIVELPIECE: Yes. I don't know when they have looked better. The president has decided to double the National Science Foundation's budget over the next five years. That amounts to $10 billion of new money over the next 10 years. That, coupled with $4.4 billion for the SSC, represents a truly unprecedented increase for basic research in the United States. The president needs to be congratulated for that. It's not clear to me that the science community is truly appreciative, but the president did a remarkable thing, and I'd like to make sure the world knows that.

There's been dramatic growth in support of basic research in the United States in the last few years. This still seems to annoy some people in the basic research business because not all the areas they think ought to be funded get funded, but from the point of view of the United States as a whole, there's been tremendous growth. For R&D taken as a whole, the United States spends more on it than the sum of what's spent by all the rest of the countries in the world. Universities are still in difficulty with respect to equipment; the equipment is ailing, aging. There is also the competition that has erupted for congressionally initiated bricks-and-mortar projects, which so far I don't really believe are competing for science dollars, although they are certainly not helping the situation.

Q: You're talking about the pork-barrel projects?

TRIVELPIECE: That's your term. I refer to them as congressionally initiated projects.

Q: You suggested recently that one of your tasks is going to be to maintain enthusiasm for science in the next administration. Why do you think that might be difficult?

TRIVELPIECE: The experience of looking back over the last four or five administrations. It has its ups and downs. How do you try to even it out? I think the roller-coaster effect is very bad. The government should try to support science on a more-or-less even keel. The gains that have been made in support of science in this administration may well not be a priority in the next. How do you try to ensure that it does become a priority? By calling attention to it. I hope I have the vehicles to call attention to it through being the executive officer of the AAAS.

Issues Facing AAAs

Q: What are the main issues facing the AAAS?

TRIVELPIECE: There are a number of mechanical issues. One is to go there and be its executive officer. That's an ordinary collection of business responsibilities. Science has to come out once a week, and it has a cash flow associated with it. The publisher of that has a responsibility to see to it that it is published once a week and play whatever role is appropriate in the editorial policy. I'm very pleased with Dan Koshland and what he's done with Science since he's been editor. I think the journal has had a reputation in the past of being too heavily concentrated towards biological interests. I would like to see it represent science on a broader basis. Koshland has been moving in that direction, trying to get the physical sciences to publish there.

Q: Was it a factor in your selection, that you bring that background and expertise to the Association, and, therefore, to the journal?

TRIVELPIECE: I don't suppose it was a negative factor. The AAAS ought not to be the representative of large or small science or biological or physical science. It really is for the advancement of all sciences.

The AAAS can also be used as a vehicle to further international activity. What has concerned me is that there's a tendency for international agreements to be put together, and then somebody says, "Oh, by the way, why don't we throw in a science and technology agreement?" Then people scurry around and look for something to do under the S&T agreement. Quite frequently that doesn't work very well. Putting together agreements where the function proceeds to form is very important. You need to find areas in which scientists are desirous of cooperating, where there are sensible technical things for them to do. This attitude of "By the way, let's have an S&T agreement" does not reflect what I believe the situation ought to be—namely, that science and technology have the opportunity to begin to lead some of the international agreements. The appropriate use of science and technology as an element of international policy is not fully appreciated at diplomatic levels. To the extent that I can use my understanding of that problem, and the pulpit of being the executive officer of the AAAS and publisher of Science, I would like to try to sensitize them and to advance science as a leading element of international political activities.

Science at Summits

Q: Do you have some specific notions that might move you closer to that goal?

TRIVELPIECE: Part of it is education. The economic summit meetings have been a good example. At the Versailles summit, President Mitterrand said science and technology are essential elements in the economic health of the developed countries. As a result, a technology growth and employment group was established and some 18 areas identified for exploration as to enhanced international collaboration and the resulting benefits. Two of those areas were fusion and high-energy physics; I was chairman for high-energy physics, and co-chairman for fusion. During the three years that we met, we made considerable progress in trying to lay the groundwork for what became the Reagan-Gorbachev fusion summit activity that is culminating with a meeting in Vienna—as well as for possible collaboration on something like the Superconducting Supercollider. But the technology growth and employment group has now been abolished. I think that was a mistake. How can you have an economic summit and not recognize the fact that science and technology are such a pervasive aspect of our everyday life? I use a rough estimate, strictly a ballpark guess, but something like a third of our gross national product owes its existence to our knowledge of the atom and its parts. That's pretty remarkable. If that's true here, it must be true in other countries. And yet do you see any mention in the economic summit context of the roles science and technology play? People are more concerned about balance of trade deficits and trade barriers.

A Long-Term Payoff

Q: What you're touching on here is that trendy word "competitiveness." It may be a key factor in the government's present enthusiasm for science. How easy is it to persuade people in government that, with the basic research that's funded today, the payoff won't come for 10 or 20 years, but it's still worth waiting for?

TRIVELPIECE: I have only to look at the transcripts of my hearings in the past few years to realize that selling these ideas is very difficult, that the standard problem is that Congress says, "Well, we're going to give you all this money this year; what discoveries are you going to bring forward next year?" They don't mean it trivially or disingenuously; it's a sincere and honest question. They point out to me, "Look, I've got farmers committing suicide in my district; how can you ask for money for basic research in these circumstances?" Scientists tend to look at these things in an absolute sense, but in fact it really is a political decision. The president can ask for a certain budget for science, but in the end it is going to have to be weighed against rivers and harbors and Social Security and things like that.

Of course, the case can be made that the payback on science is enormous. If you take a third of our gross national product and ask how much tax is paid into the treasury as a result, it's pretty clear that all the basic research the government supported in the last century has been paid back a hundred times. Fortuitous discoveries won't accrue if you don't make the investment. You'd like to create a climate in which a certain fraction of fortuitous discoveries will occur, like the recent ones on superconductivity, which may be of tremendous importance.

Litton, Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, Lockheed and ultimately Silicon Valley itself owe their existence in part to the presence of all of the activity that now constitutes the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. If you go out to where Fermilab is now, there are all sorts of companies nearby; when Fermilab was started there in '66, it was just open farmland for miles. These facilities tend to serve as a nucleating agent for high-tech industries. But the area around Stanford didn't happen in two or three years, nor even in a few congressional election intervals. It was a 15- or 20-year operation. It's staggering how much benefit has accrued there, but you couldn't have guessed it in the early days, when the Linear Accelerator was a small project.

Public Education

Q: One result of the sale of Science '86 is that the AAAS has a much lower public profile than it did a year ago. Is that a problem that needs addressing? Are there other things the Association needs to do about public education, and if so what might they be?

TRIVELPIECE: The answer is yes, and until I get there and have a chance to figure out what can be done, I don't think I can give you a good answer. But the AAAS is a wonderful vehicle to try to inform the public generally about science.

It's been a longstanding concern of mine that small children start out as intellectuals and the system seems to beat that out of them. Is there a way by which we can get involved in trying to move that along? Obviously the billions of dollars spent by the states dwarfs anything that the AAAS can do directly in terms of financial activities. But it's a leverage type of operation. How can you call people's attention to it, try to stimulate activity at the state and local level, recognizing the importance of science literacy as the next generation evolves in the United States? I would like to try to take advantage of the organization to do something in that arena.

Support for Science

Q: Your concern that interest in science may fall off rapidly in the next administration suggests that support of science isn't really very deep, or even very broad.

TRIVELPIECE: That's correct. The bipartisan support for science in Congress has been excellent, but scientists are not politically sophisticated. And science isn't politically strong compared with the interests of farmers, truck drivers or almost any other element of our society that forms self-interest groups and tries to identify its needs. Science is a poor second in that kind of an activity. We survive well because the Congress is reasonably sophisticated and has supported it on a bipartisan basis, sometimes even when they have difficulty in their own districts doing it. I think they do quite a good job of it, and I would like to try to help them do it.

A few years ago I made the suggestion that what we need is a "science and technology awareness month" when everybody who earns a living in science should go out and try to acquaint their next-door neighbor with what it is they do and why they do it. Everything that we eat, fly, drive, take in the way of medicine and so on—there's hardly a single aspect of contemporary life that does not involve a discovery that has been made in the last 20,30,40 years, and that depends in part on government support of basic research. How many people in the public understand that? Who is going to tell them? I don't know that I have any magic formula, or that Science magazine or the AAAS is going to be the vehicle by which this occurs. But it's one of those things I would like to take a run at. I have suggested that it's up to all of you out there who earn a living in science to make the special effort to make sure that you are talking to your local PTA, Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club or whatever. Just go out and do it once a year.


Q: You're suggesting what is almost a one-on-one public relations effort.

TRIVELPIECE: Yes, it works best. When you stand up in front of an audience you tend to give a slightly dry, stilted talk. If you're talking to your neighbor over the fence, and he says, "What do you do for a living?," you're forced to explain it to him in a way that doesn't involve the particular scientific, technical jargon that you find necessary to explain your work to your colleagues.

Most people are fascinated by science if you take the trouble to try to explain it to them in a way that makes sense. One year I decided I was going to try to explain high-energy physics to Congress, and why people do it. The example I used was this: imagine you have a bale of hay in which you've hid-den a bunch of billiard balls, and the trick is to find out where the billiard balls are, and how big they are, without taking the bale of hay apart. How do you do that? Well, you start shooting rifle bullets through the bale of hay. Every once in a while one of them hits a billiard ball and bounces off. You see where it came out and where it went in and by that you can tell where the balls are and how big they are. That's the simple idea by which most of what we know about the atom and its interior has been determined. The rifle is like a cyclotron and the atom is like the bale of hay. I was a little embarrassed about having used such a homely analogy. But several congressmen went out of their way to thank me. Some of them said that, in all the years they had people in to talk to them about high-energy physics, that was the first time they understood what physicists were trying to do. If you start immediately talking about quarks and leptons and gluons, obviously people aren't going to understand you. But there are ways to explain these things without doing that, and I would just hope that my colleagues out there will take the time to do it with their neighbors.

A Science Lobby

Q: Does science need a lobby?

TRIVELPIECE: Yes. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn't been a science and engineers group for almost any presidential candidate for a long time. There are no political action committees for science. If Congress decides to do something scientists don't like, singularly or collectively, they have no means of expressing themselves other than the occasional letter. Almost any other self-interest group in this country has an ability to collectively express its pleasure or displeasure in a way that puts it in the political arena. The AAAS is not a lobbying organization, and I'm not going to the AAAS to become a lobbyist. But there are certain things it can do with respect to educating the public on matters appropriate to its interests. Through that, at least I hope to try to improve the public understanding of science, and perhaps indirectly have some influence.

Q: But you think it is reasonable for scientists to form political action committees, for example, or to be active on behalf of particular candidates?

TRIVELPIECE: I think the world has changed. Fifteen or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago, that might not have been necessary. The competition is just getting very, very keen these days. The stakes are getting higher. I don't think we can afford to go into the next 15 or 20 years relaxed about this, assuming that because we do wonderful things, the system will take care of us. I don't think that's true now.

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