When it comes to science, the U.S. is lost in space

Robert Reno

November 04, 1993|By Robert Reno

WITHIN a few days, the United States has become the first nation to orbit a veterinarian, to dissect a rat in space and to spend $2 billion on a hole in the ground that is now useless.

If a scientist arrived from Mars and was told these feats were part of two of the most expensive research projects ever undertaken by humans, he'd imagine Earth was inhabited by idiots. Either that or, having met with human leaders, he'd politely ask to see the planet's more intelligent species.

There were, of course, intelligent arguments why the United States should not have committed $11 billion to build a superconducting supercollider, most of them having to do with the amount of socially useful science that could have been purchased by a similar expenditure in other research where such a huge portion of the investment wouldn't be eaten up by the earth-moving budget, using technologies not all that far removed from the excavating methods of ancient Rome.

And there were, to be sure, compelling arguments in favor of the supercollider, not the least of which was the notion that humankind, for the sheer knowing of it, had a reason to understand the very process by which the universe was created. But there was no scientific argument for spending $2 billion on a project and then canceling it at termination costs of perhaps another billion.

Anyway, the supercollider lived and died as an economic program as unrelated to pure science as to sound politics. It was an irresistible lure for the states bidding for it and a prize for the Texas and Louisiana politicians who brought it home.

Just as surely, it became a huge target for members of Congress from other states, many of whom had gotten sick of being scolded about the evil of their liberal tax-and-spend ways by Texans of the likes of Sen. Phil Gramm, who never saw a spending program that wasn't socialistic nor a socialistic spending program that was too good for Texas.

Meanwhile, a good portion of the national Treasury continues to pour into socialized space, another project beneficial to Texas. This too is a program requiring enormous expenditure extraneous to its basic scientific mission, which last week was the dissection of a live, unanesthetized rat by a vet in space.

The money spent keeping alive the space vet and the unfortunate rat in the deadly environment of space travel was vastly disproportionate to the social value on Earth of knowing the effect of weightlessness on a rodent's brain.

Such is the weird commitment of America to science even as spending on nonmilitary scientific research has shrunk from 5.2 percent of the federal budget to a mere 1.8 percent in the last 25 years.

We may wallow in national pride that American scientists nearly swept the Nobel prizes this year, but these mature geniuses are, to a large extent, products of an education system that no longer exists. American universities are turning out three times as many lawyers and twice as many psychologists as they did 25 years ago. The number of doctorate degrees conferred in the softer disciplines has risen.

But even as college enrollments have soared, there are far fewer Ph.D.s being awarded in the physical and life sciences and in mathematics, in the bedrock fields the understanding of which will drive technology, progress and competitiveness in the next century.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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