Let's be frank about US science

From remarks by George A. Keyworth II, science adviser to the President of the United States, before the American Physical Society in Baltimore, Md.m Let's be frank. Our world leadership in high-energy physics has been dissipated. In the years American physicists squandered on a pork barrel squabble, the Europeans moved boldly ahead. CERN (Europe's main center of high-energy physics) is now boasting of imminent construction of a lepton-lepton collider, to be followed by a hadron-hadron collider and a lepton-hadron collider - machines (for atom smashing) that exceed anything that has yet been submitted for official sanction in the United States. So we shouldn't be surprised when we hear, as we have in the past few weeks, that CERN now has hopes of attracting Japanese researchers and resources away from US facilities. That would be an unfortunate consequence of our spinning wheels, but it's also the inevitable consequence of competition.

It's clear to me that people at CERN are convinced that the contest for supremacy in high-energy physics is no longer in question. I'm far from convinced, because I know with determination we can get back on track. But, the decisions we make and the attitudes we develop over the next few months are critical for our future in particle physics. We really have no choice but to strive to regain that leadership. To aim at anything less than regaining that leadership is to foreclose the future for this forefront research in the United States. This has to be a time for statesmanship, not for pet projects.

I don't suggest there are simple answers, though some people would have us try to claim some percentage of gross national product as a guaranteed funding level for R&D (research and development). All too soon the only criterion that ought to count - excellence - gets lost in the noise of formula grants, geographic distribution, and set-asides.

Moreover, in order to sell and maintain such a funding mechanism, one would have to overstate the benefits to be gained from technology. I'm afraid the resulting pressure for tangible results would inevitably divert resources away from basic research and into applied research and development.

I'm especially worried about the continued inability - or unwillingness - of the science community to agree among themselves about priorities - or to abide by their decisions when they can agree. I wouldn't think it necessary that I remind them that these are tough times. I'll add that for anyone depending on federal funding, they're going to remain tough times for quite a while.

Those disciplines that present well-considered, unified agendas for research have the best chance of getting support for their programs.

I have one final topic - and it concerns the involvement of the science community in issues of national defense.

(In March) the President took a step that might, eventually, help us abandon the frightening concept of mutual assured destruction that we live with today. He challenged the science community to devise a defense against anti-ballistic missiles - to find a way to prevent a nuclear attack from occuring by nullifying the offensive weapons that dominate today.

Frankly, I was disappointed to see so many quick negative responses from scientists active in arms reduction efforts. Even more surprising to me were the arguments I heard. Some pointed out deficiencies in systems not yet invented. Others declared outright that the task is forever impossible. And we were treated as well to the opinion that the subject of missile defense was taboo, that the only acceptable means for diminishing nuclear danger was through the specific arms reductions scenarios advocated by those critics.

The best analogy I can think of for the feasibility of ABM technology is our attempt to harness fusion. Scientists prevailed on the government to begin funding that research more than 30 years ago - based on rudimentary theory and a long-term vision of world energy needs. Even after 32 years and billions of dollars, I'd be surprised if we were even halfway to our goal - and no one can tell us yet how we're going to achieve it. But we have hope that we can develop the technology eventually - and the goal is too important not to try to reach.

Thirty years ago - or even today - a skeptic could point out a dozen ''technical'' reasons why fusion would never be successful. He could make a strong case against diverting intellectual and material resources from more important energy R&D. But then or now he'd be falling into the familiar trap of using current experience to evaluate tomorrow's knowledge.

We know that these aren't unusual occurrences in science. In 1933 Lord Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, said that ''anyone who expects a source of power from . . . the atoms is talking moonshine.'' In 1944 Theodore von Karman, the aeronautical pioneer, discounted the feasibility of supersonic flight and the feasibility of navigation off the gravitational field of the earth. And in 1945 Vannevar Bush offered the opinion that a workable ICBM was an impossibility. What's amazing is not so much their faulty vision as the short time it took to reveal it.

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