Lack of funds grounds US scientists

American scientists criticize the Soviet Union for restricting its scientists' travel. Thus, when Jewish physicist L. Okun was not among the Soviet delegation at an international physics meeting in Madison, Wis., in July, the Americans sent the Soviet Academy of Sciences a written protest with the signatures of 841 physicists from 34 countries.

But justified as such protest may be, American scientists and science administrators should look first to their own house. It may shock many of them to find that Americans have as bad a no-show record as do the Soviets, as pointed out by American geophysicist C. T. Russell in an editorial in EOS, the transactions of the American Geophysical Union.

Russell had organized an international symposium in Hungary. He too has been concerned about the Soviet no-show tendency. However, he decided to analyze just who did and did not show up as planned. The result of this study, he says, "contains a big surprise (to me). Every paper (invited and contributed) from a country other than the US and USSR was presented. The records of the US and the USSR, while different, were not all that different when compared to the records of the other countries." Both the US and USSR had a substantial number of no shows.

As Russell notes, one can only speculate as to the reasons for the Soviet record. Politics are usually suspected since those scientists whom the Soviet Government wants to have at international meetings have the resources for travel. American scientists, on the other hand, have their travel restricted by lack of funds. This reflects a different kind of political factor -- the failure of Congress and funding agencies (and even some research institutions) to recognize the crucial role of communication in the advance of knowledge.

Referring to the American "no shows," Russell says: "They either could not get travel approval or did not have enough travel money, both problems of science administration in the US. Government scientists have great difficulty traveling these days, even in the US. Other scientists are seldom explicitly given foreign travel money in their contracts or grants, and there is seldom any fat in these contracts and grants to cover such travel if it later becomes approved.Only two US scientists (of nine) decided not to come for personal reasons. Further there were several American scientists who wanted to attend the symposium but gave up or were turned down prior to the abstract [filing] deadline."

That's a rather sorry record for a country that touts freedom of scientific research and communication and condemns countries that shackle their researchers. American scientists are just as frustrated by explicit or implicit policies that treat travel to scientific conferences as a fringe benefit and not as an essential part of the scientific process. Russell is right to insist that "before we US scientists point the figner, we should get our down house in order."

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