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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
The struggle over science

A POINT OF VIEW
By Harold Evans

In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans considers rising concern in the US over the Bush administration's hostility to science.

I used to get mad at the way it was left to America to bring to full fruition fine achievements by Britain's scientists, inventors and engineers. Take Alexander Fleming's penicillin, Frank Whittle's jet engine, Alan Turing's computer and Robert Watson Watt's radar.

All these breakthroughs found their fullest exploitation in the United States. Indeed, they all contributed to America's pre-eminence in science-based manufacturing and services.

Think of the personal computer and wonder drugs, of the jumbo jetliner, video games and the pacemaker, the laser that counts your groceries and the laser, or the global positioning satellite, that tells you to turn left at the roundabout.

Planets
Scientists are working on planet to planet communication

That is why there is furious bewilderment here in the universities and the higher levels of business at the chilly indifference - not to say hostility - of the Bush White House to science. Actually, I've seen a movie like this once before and I know how it ends.

When I was a science reporter in Britain in the 50s, it was a thrill to visit the centre of government research, the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, Middlesex. It was hallowed ground.

I was in the lab where Watson Watt did his breakthrough work on radar in time for the Royal Air Force to find the Luftwaffe in the invisible skies and win the Battle of Britain.

I stood in awe before that much-photographed early computer - the wall-length monster called ACE - designed in 1945 by the wartime code-breaker, Alan Turing. It was then the fastest in the world, spewing out instant answers to reams of calculations I was allowed to feed into its innards.

Inertia

You would have thought that the National Physical Laboratory would be the darling of every British Government. Not so. I was invited to visit at that time because they were concerned the government did not fully appreciate that science in peace was as vital as science in war.

The researchers were doing what they could on a tiny budget and even that was about to be cut. Not just in the government, but in business and society, there was a general indifference to science and scientific education that seems odd today.

The consequence of that inertia in government and lethargy in business was that the US came to dominate the computer industry, despite all the brilliant work of Turing at Manchester University and others at Ferranti.

Young Americans are opting for better paid law and medicine over science and engineering and visa restrictions on bright foreign students further dilute the talent pool

The question now tormenting Americans - who don't have a natural aptitude for worry - is whether the same writing is on the wall for them. Vinton Cerf is one who thinks it is, and he is no ordinary hand-wringer.

He's the mathematician who is often referred to as the "father of the internet". From 1972 to 1986, he was one of the key people in the US Defense Department who made it possible for distant and different computers to exchange packets of information - and that's the foundation of the internet on top of which rides the world wide web today.

Nothing daunted, he is now working on the protocols for planet to planet communication. In short, he knows whereof he speaks. And Cerf has just emitted a cry of pain.

The Bush administration does not take kindly to anyone who has drawn a federal dollar being critical - and being critical moreover in the businessman's' bible, the Wall street Journal.

Talent pool

So it is brave of Cerf to risk future disfavour and inveigh against "the stewards of our national destiny" for cutting money from key areas of research in its 2006 budget. That's a recipe, says Cerf, for "irrelevance and decline."

The president's science adviser, John Marburger, concedes that the budget is "pretty close to flat" but stoutly maintains "we are not going backwards", pointing to an extra $733 million for research and development (R&D) funding.

In fact, this is the first time in a decade that federal funding has failed to keep pace with inflation. And in the entrails of the complex budget - no one should go there alone - you find there is indeed less money in real terms for what's called basic research and less for Cerf's area of particular concern, computer science.

Funding university research for that has been falling through the first Bush term and is now about half what it was in 2001.

All told, anyway, America now ranks sixth in the world in the percentage of its wealth it spends on R&D. Yet the downward trend isn't solely the result of the parsimony of "the hick in the White House", as one motor mouth put it.

It is largely a reflection of rising educational standards around the world, so it's a comparative decline. In real terms, no single country can even come close to matching the US in the total scientific investment by government, corporations and foundations.

So what is there to worry about? Well, there are some facts Americans find hard to swallow after decades of striding the frontiers of science. Fewer of the Nobel prizes go to American scientists, down to about half from a peak in the 90s. Papers from Americans occupied 61% of published research in 1983, now the total is just under 29%.

'Freedom of inquiry'

It may not get better soon since a higher proportion of young Americans are opting for better paid law and medicine over science and engineering and visa restrictions on bright foreign students further dilute the talent pool. "The rest of the world is catching up," says John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation.

Since some of these trends have been developing on the watch of presidents from Reagan onwards, I sought a science policy health check from luminaries in the field.

Professor Neal Lane at Rice University was the science adviser reporting directly to President Clinton, but as a former director of the National Science Foundation he cannot be dismissed as partisan.

Like others I spoke with, he is less concerned with the international league tables and the familiar salami processes of the budget, than the well-documented readiness of the Bush administration to manipulate and suppress scientific findings - manifestly to appease industrial interests and religious constituencies.

Alexander Fleming
Fleming gave the world penicillin
This is not just on global warming and stem cells, currently in the news, but on a whole range of issues - lead and mercury poisoning in children, women's health, birth control, safety standards for drinking water, forest management, air pollution and on and on.

"It's disturbing," Professor Lane told me. "This is the first time to the best of my knowledge through successive Republican and Democratic administrations, that the issue of scientific integrity has reared its head."

Of similar mind is Russell Train, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford. He says: "How radically we have moved away from regulation based on professional analysis of scientific data ...to regulation controlled by the White House and driven by political considerations."

The White House denies such accusations and says it makes decisions based on the best available science.

But these two speak for what is now a considerable body of alarmed and angry scientists. For more than a year, the nationally well-regarded Union of Concerned Scientists - a non-partisan body - has been receiving hundreds of signatures backing the Union's call for regulatory and legislative action to restore scientific integrity to policy making. To date no fewer than 7,600 scientists have signed, including 49 Nobel Laureates.

Perhaps another voice should be added to the clamour. "Science relies on freedom of inquiry, and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity - government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance..." Those are the words of President Bush in 1990 - George Herbert Walker, the father - not the son.


Surely the Bush cabinet are intelligent men, but their continued bungling of international affairs and unsubtle pandering to industry at home are pretty baffling. What long-term good can come of pretending climactic catastrophe is not happening? Its scary watching the current global empire begin its collapse.
Alexander Brady, UK

I'm just waiting for the Bush Administration to declare "the World is, indeed flat" and that should anyone disagree they shall be made to answer while tied to a stake and burned.
Notwen Cassi, Columbus Ohio

And the USA is not alone. Australia is small in comparison with the American and European giants but interest in science and engineering is falling among students here also. Because of the perceived financial benefits, those students who get the highest marks in Year-12 aim for law and medicine. But medicine is not chosen for the science content. It's for the cash; and since, in my opinion, lawyers never contribute to the overall wealth of a community by actually making anything, this situation is a terrible waste of ability. At the moment we are not under the influence of fundamental religionists, of any persuasion, but we need to be aware of such and be prepared to defend science from the ignorant. Am I biased on this? Certainly and proud of it.
Brian J. Ferguson, Australia

"Science relies on freedom of inquiry, and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity - government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance..." "government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance..." Unfortunately for government, most scientists are far from impartial observers. They are active participants in the political process, and should be treated as such. Calling scientists objective is like calling academics objective, or calling journalists objective. Some are, but most are not.
Timothy Lu, Australia

While I am disturbed by the tendency of the current administration to cave in to the political and monetary pressures of big businesses and lobbyists, etc., I must also note the following: Since when has science ever had "objectivity" or an "impartial perspective"? To be sure there may be a handful of such scientists and studies, but I have long been appalled at the wide-ranging bias of the "scientific" community, the sloppiness of methodology, and the lack of genuine logic. If the scientific community had their papers graded first by a professor of philosophy there would be few such papers ever published. Very sad indeed.
Clark Hay, U.S.A.

America is destined to become the legal consultants of the world. We have all the lawyers. Let the rest of the world invent, manufacture, and distribute stuff. We will just litigate wherever, however, whoever, and whenever a need arises. And that will be our contribution to the world's economy....in addition to unabashed, consipicuous consumption.
Matt Hughes, USA

Pres. Geo. Bush and the "radical right" within two terms have done and continue to do more things than I can list against scientific thinking, logical and reasonable thought, and our country's education for years to come. Not to even mention the respect and admiration of other countrys and their people. A great many of us see the grave danger these changes have and will make.
Dave, U.S.A.

This is the result of Companies requiring PROFITS today at all costs to keep the markets and share holders happy. (The Wall Street way). This is so wrong we also need to take a long term view on things as well as the short term. I feel that in the Companies I have worked for there is no longer a long term view or plan. Science takes years to develop ideas that benefit us all in end. You know some times the best returns take a little bit longer to nurture! We must invest in R & D but give this investment the time needed to pay its dividends.
Carl Thomson, Staffs UK

America is rapidly turning into a christian fundamentalist dictatorship. Incidents such as the suppression of climate change information and the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in schools give a clear picture of the American government's distain for any science that can't be used to bomb people into submission.
John, England

Cry me a river. Since when did spending on science become a political benchmark? Maybe the same year that government spending on mass transit became the full measure of national prestige. The USA has declined relatively due in no small part to a tremendous outpouring of consumer dollars to countries such as China and India. Where does the author expect this money to originate, anyway? Apparently, perpetual motion blarney has given way to perpetual money. The USA is gushing money from every orifice, and that money, at least in part, is being wisely invested by foreign interests toward technology and education. That has nothing to do with the present US administration, and everything to do with globalization. The author would be well advised to find the forest, and pay less attention to the trees.
Mark Davis, USA

Mr. Evans, I could not agree with you more on this subject. I am an Electrical Engineer, science fanatic, and have worked with, and along with, school systems in several southern states. I am ashamed that we have a President who often shows his ignorance, and his lack of concern regarding science and education itself. So what can we do? What can I do?
Larry Tucker, USA

I am a physician and have a strong interest in the scientific community. I also support G. Bush. I, however, would like to be responsibly informed of issues and make comment where appropriate. T. Harstad M.D.
timothy harstad, u.s.a.




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