Science for Grandma

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

September 21, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Scientists shuddered when Lyndon Johnson declared his interest in ''what science could do for grandma,'' and ordered his science adviser to point the nation's research enterprise toward the solution of domestic problems.

Science, however, is a tradition-bound enterprise that's ingeniously resistant to external directions. It did not radically change course then or in response to similar commands from later presidents. But today, an important conceptual turnabout is occurring in the elite echelons of the scientific community, forced by the interplay of stringent budgets and the shrinking time gap between discoveries and products that embody them. The chieftains of science are, in effect, thinking about grandma.

With government support for research no longer growing -- in fact, declining in buying power -- the leaders of the science establishment are urging science to redirect itself toward boosting national economic growth. The ancient creed of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is absent from the dialog of science and politics.

At the high temple of science, the National Academy of Sciences, President Frank Press last spring discussed change from the perspective of the growing intimacy between scientific knowledge and commercial applications. The process, he said, even extends to ''astronomy, botany, and mathematics, which we usually think of as being removed from the marketplace.

''This new reality,'' Dr. Press predicted, ''will entail an increasingly direct connection between fundamental science and engineering and their commercial applications.''

At the purest of government agencies for supporting university-based fundamental research, the National Science Foundation, Director Walter Massey is calling for more emphasis on research aimed at the marketplace. Referring to Dr. Press' analysis, Dr. Massey said, ''The foundation has already begun to plan for and evolve toward this new reality.''

Noting that ''the U.S. economy now competes in a global arena where success is increasingly linked to capitalizing on scientific advances and new technologies,'' Dr. Massey warned that the science foundation must respond to the change. Otherwise, he said, it would ''revert to its historical roots as a small agency

predominantly dedicated to the support of individual investigators and small groups at universities.''

At the National Institutes of Health, where science and healing have historically been the prime values, an additional factor holds prominence in a massive strategic plan for guiding the agency into the next century: competitiveness.

It can't be ignored, says Director Bernadine Healy, pointing out that the health institutes financed the research that led to the creation of the biotechnology industry. It continues to bankroll the field, with a world-leading $4 billion a year for research in academe, industry and its own laboratories.

Meanwhile, a major study of scientific organization, priorities and goals has just begun in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The study's chairman, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., says, ''We will examine the extent to which federal science policy should be linked to clearly defined societal goals. We will ask to what extent U.S. science policy should be linked more directly to the creation of wealth through the development of commercially useable technology.''

Utilitarian pressures have been directed at government-supported research throughout the postwar period. And a good number of the many billions that Washington spends on research are aimed at practical problems, notably in agriculture, energy and weather forecasting.

But the most prestigious part of science, basic research, has long thrived on an ideology of independence from preset goals. It produces the greatest societal benefits, according to its devotees, when it's left free to explore the secrets of nature, when government agencies simply write checks to finance scientific curiosity.

The managers of science stoutly deny that the new thrust toward science and the marketplace will be at the expense of traditional scientific independence. That would be easier to believe if money were more bountiful and politicians less insistent about the need for science to come to the aid of the economy.

This goose has produced many golden eggs and requires delicate care if more are to come.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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