Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2115th Meeting

Speaker: Daniel S. Greenberg, visiting scholar, Dept. of History of Science, Medicine and Technology, Johns Hopkins University
Topic: “The Politics of Science 2000”

President Spargo called the 2115th meeting to order at 8:15 p.m. on February 25, 2000. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2114th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2115th meeting was Daniel S. Greenberg. The title of his presentation was “The Politics of Science 2000”.

Although the relationship between American science and the federal government changed much in the 1960's, there has been little change in the federal scientific organization since the creation of NASA in 1958. Generally, scientists have stayed away from politics, but it's unusual when a segment of society in America is not involved in politics. In 1964 Senator Barry Goldwater's perceived attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons motivated many scientists to join the campaign against him. Subsequently in the next presidential election there was less reluctance for scientists to participate, and in 1968 Scientists and Engineers for Humphrey made important contributions. For example, Phil Handler, Chairman of the Biochemistry Department at the Duke University Medical School and later President of the National Academy of Sciences, lead Scientists and Engineers for Humphrey in North Carolina. The “morning after” many had misgivings, and possibly as a result of this involvement, President Nixon seemed especially reluctant to seek the advice of scientists and science in government. Eventually in 1972, he abolished the Federal Science Advisory Board.

The end of the Cold War accelerated a shift in emphasis from national security to economic competitiveness and health. The life sciences overtook the physical sciences in federal funding. Industry became the predominant source of research and development funds overall. Federal government civilian research spending finally caught up to military spending. In 1992 candidate Clinton stressed technology (“it's the economy, stupid”) over science, and his first administration's 1993 budget proposal reflected this emphasis. In 1994 the Republicans took over Congress with talk about budget cutting. Representative Kasich, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, threatened to cut the budget 25 percent across the board. This caused a great deal of concern for “science in the steady-state”. Six years later the situation is very different. Science at the NSF is booming under the leadership of Rita Colwell. The annual expenditure, federal and private, for science research in the U.S. exceeds $250 billion. What caused the turn around?

Currently there are four Ph.D. members of Congress, probably an all-time high. Certainly, the election of a scientist is a rare event, given that scientists generally stay out of politics. But the scientific community since the 1950's has been well-organized and effective in lobbying Congress. Especially effective have been the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Chemical Society. But then, science is good pork. The well-funded study of rodent control would be one example, and the University of Alabama is especially adapt at securing ear-marked, non-peer-reviewed money from Congress. Within the government itself a certain amount of promotional work can have dividends; the NIH has many buildings named after members of Congress, especially committee chairmen. The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences set up by Representative Ebert almost thirty years ago continues despite the repeated efforts to end it because it is unnecessary to recruit and retain medical doctors and nurses for military service.

The federal commitment to research remains strong, but ideological differences persist over the appropriate government role in the support of commercially related research. Though federal R&D funding has increased, it remains insufficient to satisfy all the aspirations of a large, mature scientific enterprise. But then, Greenberg's law could be invoked: research expands to consume the money available to it. The inevitable competition generates tensions among the various disciplines and institutions. For example, the social and behavioral sciences regard themselves as relatively neglected and underutilized. In the space sciences, planetary research feels the cost pressures resulting from space station delays and over-runs.

If the governmental science organization is mature, is it possibly creaky? There have been no major structural changes since 1958. Would the national research and development effort benefit from creation of a federal department of science? Has the NIH. become so unwieldy that it hinders the progress of biomedical research, and would the creation of NIH II, for the social and behavioral sciences be advisable? Has the White House Office of Science and Technology outlived its usefulness? From time to time a “Department of Science” has been proposed but it doesn't get a hearing, possibly because it threatens existing structures.

Mr. Greenberg kindly answered questions from the floor. President Spargo thanked Mr. Greenberg for the society, and welcomed him to its membership. The President then announced the next meeting and made the usual parking and beverage announcements and adjourned the 2115th meeting to the social hour at 9:32 p.m.

Attendance: 56
Temperature: 19.2°C
Weather: partly cloudy
Links: Find 'Daniel Greenberg' at

Respectfully submitted,
John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary

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