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Spinning Straw Into Gold Happens Only in Fairy Tales

By Robert C. Cowen / August 19, 1992



SCIENTISTS competing for government research funds should take a hint from an old folk story. It tells of a peasant who persuaded a king to marry his daughter by claiming she could spin straw into gold. Once married, the king locked her in a room with a pile of straw and told her to get on with it.

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Boosters who make exaggerated claims for payoffs from scientific research may find themselves in a comparable predicament. A dwarf performed the required magic for the hapless queen. But scientists and administrators caught overpromising the economic benefits of basic research will have no Rumpelstiltskin to help them out.

Princeton University president Harold Shapiro apparently had this in mind when he told the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that "some universities [have] oversold the benefits to local constituencies." He added that such hucksterism may "turn on us."

Public disappointment when expected commercial payoffs don't materialize could weaken support for science generally. Moreover, Robert Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities, warns that the mere expectation of such payoffs can compromise scientific quality.

Dr. Rosenzweig, who represents 58 United States and Canadian research universities, told the council that the belief "that science and technology are the keys to local and regional economic development" inspires the US Congress to earmark research money for projects in members' home regions without review of the projects' scientific merit. "The political forces for wider [geographical] distribution [of funding] are so strong that program resources will be spread ever thinner, making concentration of qual ity harder to sustain" he said.

The scientific community may also injure itself as scientists in one field use the economic hype coming from competing fields to undermine the credibility of their rivals. Such infighting has become the hallmark of debates over funding the particle physicists' Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) accelerator and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) space station. Boosters portray the projects as critical sources of unrealistic practical benefits. Opponents see them as money hogs that

will starve other areas of science.

NASA administrator Daniel Goldin recently claimed that "space-based research in the life sciences and biotechnology will revolutionize our way of life in the 21st century."

Claims like that prompted National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Bernadine Healy to tell Mr. Goldin that "the implication that NIH views future space experiments as critical to the overall success of biomedical research" are "particularly disturbing." She said such claims do "a serious disservice ... by the creation of unrealistic expectations and overpromise."

Meanwhile, physicists supporting the SSC are tarred with the hype of some fellow boosters. The latter claim vast economic benefits in fields such as medicine, water resources, or biology that have nothing to do with particle physics. James Krumhanal, former president of the American Physical Society, which supports the project, says such "extravagant representations to the public of potential fruits from the SSC are fictitious and ethically irresponsible."

In short, trying to justify specific research projects by claiming specific economic benefits is dangerous. It distorts research funding, splits the scientific community, and misleads the public. Instead, scientists should fight for sustained support for basic research across the board as an investment in knowledge. History shows this does produce enormous - but generally unpredictable - practical payoffs in the long run. And that's no fairy tale.