The 1,972nd Meeting of the Society

January 18, 1991

Retiring President's Lecture

Science Sings the Blues

Too Little Money, Too Many Politicians, or Too Many Scientists?

Lisa Heinz

Retiring President

About the Lecture

Oh, the golden halcyon days, the swelling national pride as Americans poured their soul into the noble quest into space. Not to mention a fair amount of money. During the Apollo years, Federal Support of university R&D rose 20% a year and the number of Federally-supported graduate students quintupled. Science prospered.

But the costs of doing science have risen two or three-fold since Sputnik, good proposals are not getting funded, and scientists are unhappy. What really is the problem, and what should be done about it? There are three woridviews:

Golden Age idealism: there is not enough money. The whole system is out of whack. Science should recoup its rightful place of honor and get more Federal funding, from other wasteful, less socially useful programs such as defense and mismanaged Social Security.
Realism, the dominant voice today, the one of sense and sensibility, of reasonableness and compromise. Realistically, there are too many demands on the deficit-ridden Federal purse and too many politicians; science is, alas, lucky to have the budget that it does. Science must put its own house in order and learn to Set Priorities. Unpleasant, of course, but necessary.
Sustainability. As any biologist or Japanese 7th grader could tell you, populations tend to follow an S-curve. Exponential growth is pleasant while it lasts, but there has to be an adjustment. Science grew exponentially in the 196Os, and now there are simply too many scientists. We must recalibrate the system, so scientists reproduce themselves and no more, and pursue sustainable science.
Where lies the best course for science?