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'83 Nobels: does past glory equal future leadership in science?

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Hard on the heels of the American sweep of Nobel prizes in the sciences this year, we are hearing warnings from some scientists. The nub of their argument: that the prizes represent work done many years - even decades - ago. That the picture they give of American predominance in pure science (and its stepchild, technology) is out of date. That the prizes may make the nation's public complacent just when the United States is in trouble on science education.

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Are these arguments valid?

Probably not in regard to American leadership in theoretical science and in basic technological research in many major fields.

Probably so in regard to science and technology education - particularly at the primary and secondary school level.

It is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about branches of knowledge whose complexity is increasing more rapidly than historians of science can grasp.

But there is a growing belief among scientific administrators - people charged with keeping abreast of, and funding work in, the fundamental sciences and their practical offshoots in microelectronics, biotechnology, superstrength engineering plastics, superceramics, etc. - that the United States and Japan will continue to lead the world in most of these areas.

In this assessment, Western Europe will trail in many of the key fields, despite concentrated efforts in West Germany, France, and Britain. And the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will slip badly behind - even in some technological areas where they once were leaders.

In this picture of global scientific progress, we have a new version of the old division between industrial societies and hewers of wood and drawers of water. Those who make sci-tech projections see the US and Japan as superpowers of science and research just as the US and USSR are military superpowers. They forecast further strides in the process by which Japan rose to preeminence in microelectronics via steppingstones involving worldwide leadership in shipbuilding, automobiles, and consumer electronics - which have been gradually subcontracted out to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even North Borneo.

They see the US and Japan racing into super-computers, replacing many steel components of cars and machines with lighter engineering plastics and ceramic engines, moving heavily into specialty steel and new alloys, hopscotching beyond agricultural hybridizing into custom genetic designing of plants. And meanwhile sending offshore to other nations at least parts of the heavy-steel, textile, chemical, and petrochemical industries.

Broad forecasts are often non-self-fulfilling prophecies. The American population did not level off at 150 million as forecast in the late 1930s. Eurocommunism did not sweep southern Europe. Sputnik did not mark the beginning of Soviet technical dominance. OPEC did not gain control of the world economy or world banking.

The US-Japanese threat to lap the other runners in the science-and-technology race may yet provoke a resurgence in pure science and in successful applied science in Western Europe. It could even force some successor to Soviet President Yuri Andropov, however reluctantly, to reform the Stalinist system in order to save the Soviet empire from stagnation and scientific backwater status.

But what of that other part of the equation - scientific education?

Most of the major industrial societies are worried - and rightly so - that they have let science education on the lower level slip. Even Japanese educators , whose primary and secondary schooling are highly rated, are nonetheless concerned about one basic area.

At a seminar in Tokyo where this writer was a panelist, a recurrent theme among Japanese government and business executives was summed up by one administrator from MITI, Japan's famed ministry of trade and industry. ''We know we have a good education system,'' he said. ''We produce all the fine engineers we need. But we are not producing the pure scientists, the eccentric geniuses. And therefore we think we will fall behind you in years ahead.''

Adm. Bobby Inman, the noted American intelligence chief turned computer research czar, echoes that assessment. When he heard about the MITI official's remark, he said that he thought the Japanese educational system emphasized thoroughness and discipline, but tended to be repaid for its success with too much conformity of thinking. And he added that American university graduate work in scientific fields goes far beyond anything in Japanese education in encouraging unrestricted exploration of basic scientific questions.

Other American research specialists point out that spinoffs from US military and space programs also contribute to civilian technological leadership.

But there seems to be wide agreement on one less optimistic conclusion: Those American post-graduate labs and industrial, military, and space-research programs will not receive as many bright recruits in the future unless there is a sharp upgrading of lower-school science teaching.

Educators rightly point out that one of the biggest problems they face is salary competition for science teachers from the very civilian and military institutions which will need their science students. Those students are the foundation on which this whole broad picture of future scientific leadership is built.

The American technology-business community is developing programs to fund science teachers, to encourage its researchers to do shared-time teaching, to help science teachers advance their skills. A long commitment will be needed. Since the 1940s, similar industry programs have been started, only to falter. The US needs more than the few years of good intentions on science education that grew from the 1957 Sputnik alarm.