Researchers' Assessment Of 1993: Science Gained, Politics Reigned

Despite impressive lab achievements, the big news this year has sprung from the corridors of power in Washington Scientists, policy experts, administrators, and observers of the research community appear satisfied that 1993 has been a strong year in terms of research advances. They cite, for example, bold steps taken this year in gene therapies and a continuing frenzy of research on the 60-atom molecules of carbon known as buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs. Overall, they feel, researchers

Franklin Hoke
Dec 12, 1993

Despite impressive lab achievements, the big news this year has sprung from the corridors of power in Washington
Scientists, policy experts, administrators, and observers of the research community appear satisfied that 1993 has been a strong year in terms of research advances. They cite, for example, bold steps taken this year in gene therapies and a continuing frenzy of research on the 60-atom molecules of carbon known as buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs.

Overall, they feel, researchers pressed their disciplines forward on many fronts, advancing fundamental knowledge and clinical capabilities dramatically.

However, those interviewed during recent weeks by The Scientist also tend to share the opinion that the most important developments for science took place not in academic and industry labs throughout the United States, but in the nation's capital, in the halls of Congress and the agencies in whose hands lie the fate of America's research future.

Many sources agree, for example, that the most arresting single event this year--and hardly a scientific step forward--was the cancellation by Congress of the superconducting supercollider (SSC). Also cited as highly significant, if less dramatic, are the well-received science appointments that followed President Bill Clinton's inauguration in January, specifically those of Harold Varmus to head the National Institutes of Health and Neal Lane to be director of the National Science Foundation. In addition, a major shift in the rationale for public funding of science, toward more economic justifications, in both Congress and the new administration, is seen as worrisome by many scientists.

A settlement in favor of the accused in several high-profile scientific misconduct cases on appeal, new rules for assessing indirect costs in research, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care reform proposals are also expected to influence the environment for future research.

Certainly, researchers and clinicians continued to move boldly in their respective fields, according to observers.

"This year brought very clearly home that we've entered the era of cell therapeutics, from which we're never going to retreat," says Donald S. Fredrickson, director of NIH from 1975 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter.

Fredrickson believes that the replacement of genes, the development of humanized murine antibodies, and the creation of designer drugs to receptors are major steps toward fully realized molecular medicine.

"It will be three or four years before this will become so commonplace that we'll turn to the vial instead of the pill box," he says.

Fredrickson says, too, that the emerging molecular therapies may serve to reunify investigators whose biomedical goals have evolved in disparate directions over the past decade and more.

"We've probably bottomed out in the creation of this tremendous gradient between clinical researchers and molecular biologists," Fredrickson says. "The whole field of molecular biology and molecular genetics is now becoming not a discipline at all, but a set of tools. More and more, very gifted people in molecular biology are working on more clinically related problems."

But political changes take precedence over laboratory advances as others look back at the year in science.

"The most important [event] is the new science and technology policy of the administration," says Erich Bloch, NSF director from 1984 to 1990 under President Ronald Reagan and now a fellow with the Council on Competitiveness in Washington.

"I put that one ahead of all of them, because it's the basis for all the others in one form or another," Bloch says. "And there's a material change occurring with this administration with the acknowledgment that technology is the driver for economic growth. I think we're seeing a sea change."

The change is going to mean researchers will have to justify their work to granting agencies in new terms, Bloch says.

"Unless you can responsibly say what you are doing is helping the country," he says, "you will have a more difficult time getting support in the future than you had in the past."

The appointments of University of California, San Francisco, geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Varmus at NIH and Rice University provost and physicist Lane at NSF, along with other top science appointments, are emphasized by some scientists.

"My concern has been that the Clinton administration would be so technology-oriented that basic research would be put into a second tier," says Arthur Kornberg, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University Medical Center and a Nobelist himself. "At least based on these appointments, that doesn't seem to be the case," Kornberg says. "That's the big story--it matches the others easily."

For many scientists, the cancellation of the SSC by Congress after a protracted appropriations struggle is the most important single story in science this year. They fear the demise of the huge particle physics project may have a lingering and detrimental effect on other large-scale science efforts, especially in related areas, such as fusion research.

"The death of the SSC is the biggest [science] event this year," says Harvey Brooks, a professor, emeritus, of technology and public policy and applied physics at Harvard University. "People in the field are beginning to see what they can do in Europe now, because the U.S. is out of the game, essentially," says Brooks, a former chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSE-PUP).

Scientists say that Congress' refusal to continue to bear the expense of the SSC begins to redefine what kinds of science will--and will not--be possible in the future.

The loss of the SSC "certainly shows that the country has lost its will to push ahead with big adventures," says J. David Litster, a professor of physics and vice president and dean for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I'm afraid that same loss of will is going to apply to other projects in other areas. In spite of how tough the times are [economically], we should have one or two heroic projects like the SSC."

Arthur Reis, associate provost for research at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., says the SSC's fall suggests a change in the way Congress and society perceive national goals. In the past, he says, some programs without obvious benefit to society were, nonetheless, seen as important to the country.

"Sometimes you don't get a lot of national good from something that's declared a national priority, but everyone seems to be behind it," says Reis. "Somehow, the SSC was never perceived as an important project by a large majority of the population. We never said that this was a national priority, like the space program was a national priority in the 1960s."

The cancellation of the SSC was not completely unexpected, given its difficulties in getting congressional backing the year before, according to Graham Glass, a professor of chemistry and dean of graduate studies at Rice University. He also accepts that the straitened economic circumstances the country now finds itself in will mean funding reductions in many areas, not only in science.

"Most of us recognize that, with a major budget deficit, science will have a much harder time," Glass says.

"Funding from the federal government will become more difficult to obtain in the future," he predicts. "The SSC is just one example--we're going to be pared down across the board." Glass adds: "Programs that have infinitely larger amounts of human appeal are being cut. It's unlikely that science can possibly escape the effects."

In contrast to the gloomy feelings surrounding the SSC's fate, several Washington appointments have buoyed scientists concerned over the continuing strength of federal support for basic science. For example, the selection of Varmus, a strong proponent of fundamental research, to head NIH reassured basic investigators that their interests would be represented in an administration whose rhetoric seems aimed at technology transfer and strategic research. Also, some scientists say the research prowess of NIH itself, somewhat diminished in recent years, may rebound under Varmus.

"The capacity for that institution to regain its focus on supporting both meritorious clinical and basic research should be improved with Varmus's coming on board," says David Kipnis, Distinguished University Professor of Medicine at Washington University, St. Louis. Kipnis, a diabetes researcher, also chairs the committee overseeing the university's joint biomedical research program with Monsanto Co., St. Louis.

While Kipnis generally praises former director Bernadine Healy's efforts, he hopes Varmus will have more successful relations with Congress. Healy's encounters with the legislative branch were sometimes confrontational. Kipnis would like to see lawmakers content to describe the goals they see as important and then to let scientists decide the best way to achieve those goals.

"My concern is that appropriate and effective communication be developed with Congress," Kipnis says, "so that they exercise less and less effort to micromanipulate. Using the NIH as a social instrument is very dangerous."

Like Varmus's appointment, the choice of Neal Lane as director of NSF also has bolstered researchers' confidence that Clinton's administration will be sufficiently supportive of science. Lane is a research physicist by training; his statements express a desire to continue to maintain a balance in the NSF research portfolio between basic and applied work.

"I see a greater responsiveness to the universities in a number of these appointments," says Glass. He also says his interactions with some government departments have improved with the change of administrations in Washington.

Glass is, however, concerned about recent revisions to circular A-21, the publication from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that specifies allowable indirect costs on government research grants. The Clinton administration reviewed but let stand most of the changes proposed by the previous administration, including a 26 percent cap on administrative indirect costs, which is less than most universities charged previously, Glass says.

"We are looking at significant shortfalls," Glass says. "We're going to have to come up with millions of dollars to cover these costs, and there is no other source except the university's income to do it with. This is going to be a major hit that most universities experience."

The health care reforms proposed by Hillary Rodham Clinton this year are also likely to have repercussions for science, some researchers note. For example, pharmaceutical companies have raised concerns that the new laws may seek to control aspects of their activities, perhaps hampering their drug research and development capabilities. For now, however, the implications for biomedical research of health care reform remain unclear.

"Regardless of what the details are, the die seems to be cast that something is going to be done in the way of universal health care," says Edwin G. Krebs, a professor of pharmacology and biochemistry at the University of Washington, Seattle, and a Nobel Prize winner. "I have enough faith in the planners [to believe] that medical research is going to continue to be accommodated. The Clinton administration is very well aware of America's position in research, and it's going to be maintained."

A number of researchers who had been found guilty of misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the Public Health Service (PHS) successfully appealed their cases or saw charges against them dropped this year.

For example, the appeals panel of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees PHS, overturned ORI's case against Mikulas Popovic, an assistant to also-accused AIDS researcher Robert C. Gallo. The panel, composed mainly of lawyers, cited a lack of hard evidence in its decision. Then, just a few weeks later, noting what it viewed as a changed and more difficult-to-prove definition of misconduct, ORI dropped its charges that Gallo had appropriated the work of French researchers, ending a four- year-long battle.

Many researchers--but not all--welcome the apparent shift to a more demanding definition of what constitutes scientific misconduct. They hope that, overall, the issue will receive less attention in the future as a result.

"It's distressing that it's gone as far as it has," says Stanford's Kornberg, "because it's politicized science and exaggerated the importance of fraud. Fraud has always existed, as long as human nature has been around, but the significance of it is trivial."

"There have always been some problems," agrees Harvard's Brooks, "but they represent a very small fraction of the total. I think an objective examination would show that the scientific system is probably much less corrupt than any other system that depends on government support in our society."

Some scientists see a degree of irony in the fact that a panel of lawyers may have had the effect of returning responsibility for issues of scientific misconduct to scientists, where, they say, it belongs.

"When people attempt to provide judicial solutions toward questions of scientific research, they're obviously [using] instruments not very well made for each other," Fredrickson says. "Issues of fraud, abuse of funds, and so forth need to be punished legally, but judgments of science's notebooks simply are not amenable to this kind of treatment."

Other observers, however, point to a recently published study that suggests that researchers encounter what they believe to be fraud much more often than has been previously thought (J.P. Swazey, M.S. Anderson, K.S. Louis, American Scientist, 81[6]:542-53, 1993). These individuals see scientific misconduct as a serious problem that the community of researchers must confront, if not through the agency of ORI, then in some other way.

C.K. Gunsalus, associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, for example, praises the scientific misconduct research performed by Walter Stewart and Ned Feder of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at NIH. Stewart and Feder, after years of controversial investigation, were forcibly reassigned in early summer in an attempt to end their misconduct inquiries.

Gunsalus notes that the two men have often angered scientists, but says that their contributions are undeniable.

"These guys are infuriating, they're outrageous, they're exasperating, and they haven't got the sense that God gave geese--but they're often right," says Gunsalus, who is also chairwoman of the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

"The infuriating things about them are mostly stylistic, and they do have substance," she adds. "As a community, we ought to care more about substance than style."

Gunsalus says, for instance, that she has used a computer system developed by the Stewart and Feder to compare texts for matching character strings to both substantiate and refute allegations of plagiarism at her campus.

"They ought to have a platform from which to speak," Gunsalus says. "Should that be NIDDK? Probably not. Should it be someplace in the government? Probably so."