November 11, 2003 ny times
(1) Does Science Matter?
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and JAMES GLANZ
Through its rituals of discovery, science has extended life, conquered
disease and offered new sexual and commercial freedoms. It has pushed
aside demigods and demons and revealed a cosmos more intricate and
awesome than anything produced by pure imagination.
But there are new troubles in the peculiar form of paradise that science
has created, as well as new questions about whether it has the popular
support to meet the future challenges of disease, pollution, security,
energy, education, food, water and urban sprawl.
The public seems increasingly intolerant of grand, technical fixes, even
while it hungers for new gadgets and drugs. It has also come to fear the
potential consequences of unfettered science and technology in areas
like genetic engineering, germ warfare, global warming, nuclear power
and the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Tension between science and the public has thrown up new barriers to
research involving deadly pathogens, stem cells and human cloning. Some
of the doubts about science began with the environmental movement of the
"The bloom has been coming off the rose since `Silent Spring,' " said
Dr. John H. Gibbons, President Bill Clinton's science adviser, of Rachel
Carson's 1962 book on the ravages of DDT. Until then, he said, "People
thought of science as a cornucopia of goodies. Now they have to choose
between good and bad."
"The urgency," he said, "is to re-establish the fundamental position
that science plays in helping devise uses of knowledge to resolve social
ills. I hope rationality will triumph. But you can't count on it. As
President Chirac said, we've lost the primacy of reason."
Science has also provoked a deeper unease by disturbing traditional
beliefs. Some scientists, stunned by the increasing vigor of
fundamentalist religion worldwide, wonder if old certainties have rushed
into a sort of vacuum left by the inconclusiveness of science on the big
issues of everyday life.
"Isn't it incredible that you have so much fundamentalism, retreating
back to so much ignorance?" remarked Dr. George A. Keyworth II,
President Ronald Reagan's science adviser.
The disaffection can be gauged in recent opinion surveys. Last month, a
Harris poll found that the percentage of Americans who saw scientists as
having "very great prestige" had declined nine percentage points in the
last quarter-century, down to 57 from 66 percent. Another recent Harris
poll found that most Americans believe in miracles, while half believe
in ghosts and a third in astrology ó hardly an endorsement of scientific
"There's obviously a kind of national split personality about these
things," said Dr. Owen Gingerich, a historian of astronomy at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who speaks often of his
"Science gives you very cold comfort at times of death or sickness or so
on," Dr. Gingerich said.
In this atmosphere of ambivalence, research priorities have become
increasingly politicized, some scientists say.
"Right now it's about as bad as I've known it," said Dr. Sidney Drell, a
Stanford University physicist who has advised the federal government on
national security issues for more than 40 years.
As the world marches into a century born amid fundamentalist strife in
oil-producing nations, a divisive political climate in the United States
and abroad and ever more sophisticated challenges to scientific credos
like Darwin's theory of evolution, it seems warranted to ask a question
that runs counter to centuries of Western thought: Does science matter?
Do people care about it anymore?
Breakthroughs and Disenchantment
Clearly, science has mattered a lot, for a long time. Advances in food,
public health and medicine helped raise life expectancy in the United
States in the past century from roughly 50 to 80 years. So too, world
population between 1950 and 1990 more than doubled, now exceeding six
billion. Biology discovered the structure of DNA, made test-tube babies
and cured diseases. And the decoding of the human genome is leading
scientists toward a detailed understanding of how the body works,
offering the hope of new treatments for cancer and other diseases.
"For a lot of people, life has gotten better," said Dr. James D. Watson,
co-discoverer of the double helix. "You don't know what it was like in
1950. It wasn't just the dreariness of Bing Crosby that made life tough."
In physics, breakthroughs produced digital electronics and subatomic
discoveries. American rocket science won the space race, put men on the
moon, probed distant planets and lofted hundreds of satellites,
including the Hubble Space Telescope.
But major problems also arose: acid rain, environmental toxins, the
Bhopal chemical disaster, nuclear waste, global warming, the ozone hole,
fears over genetically modified food and the fiery destruction of two
space shuttles, not to mention the curse of junk e-mail. Such troubles
have helped feed social disenchantment with science.
When the cold war ended, the physical sciences began to lose luster and
funding. After spending $2 billion, Congress killed physicists'
pre-eminent endeavor, the Superconducting Super Collider, an enormous
"Suddenly, Congress wasn't interested in science anymore," said Fred
Jerome, a science policy analyst at the New School.
At the same time, industry spending on research soared to twice that of
the federal government, about $180 billion last year, according to the
National Science Foundation. One result is that Americans see more
drugs, cellphones, advanced toys, innovative cars and engineered foods
and less news about the fundamental building blocks and great shadowy
vistas of the universe.
The main exceptions to the downward trend in the federal science budget
are for health and weapons. This year, spending on military research hit
$58 billion, higher in fixed dollars than during the cold war.
Meanwhile, other countries are spending more on research, taking some of
the glory that America once monopolized. Japan, Taiwan and South Korea
now account for more than a quarter of all American industrial patents,
according to CHI Research. Europe is working on what will be the world's
most powerful atom smasher. The British are now flying the first probe
in a quarter century to look for evidence of life on Mars.
New Challenges, but Also Threats
Despite the explosion in the life sciences, cancer still darkens many
lives, and the flowering of biotechnology has fed worries about
genetically modified foods and organisms as well as the pending
reinvention of what it means to be human. Many people worry that the
growing power of genetics will sully the sanctity of human life.
Last month, the President's Council on Bioethics issued a report warning
that biotechnology in pursuit of human perfection could lead to
unintended and destructive ends. Experts also worry about terrorists
using advances in biology for intentional harm, perhaps on vast new scales.
"As this becomes ever easier and cheaper, it's only a matter of time
before some misguided people decide to infect the world," said Dr.
Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of science at Columbia University. Last
month, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended wide
review of experiments that could lead to biological weapons.
The physical sciences seem to have lost what was once a good story line.
Without the space race and the cold war, and perhaps facing intrinsic
limits as well as declining budgets, they are slightly adrift. Some
observers worry that physics has entered a phase of diminishing returns.
That theme runs through "The End of Science," a 1997 book by John Horgan.
In an interview, Mr. Horgan noted that physicists no longer make nuclear
arms and have lost momentum on taming fusion energy, which powers the
sun, and on developing a theory of everything, a kind of mathematical
glue that would unite the sciences. Abstract physics, he said, "has
wandered off into the fantasy land of higher dimensions and superstring
theory and has really lost touch with reality."
Other experts disagree, noting that scientific fields rise and fall in
cycles and that physics may be poised for new strides. "You can smell
discovery in the air," said Dr. Leon M. Lederman, a Nobel laureate in
physics and an architect of the supercollider. "The sense of imminent
revolution is very strong."
Despite the decline in prestige recorded in the recent Harris poll,
scientists still top the list of 22 professions in terms of high status,
ahead of doctors, teachers, lawyers and athletes.
"Science is one of the charismatic activities," said Dr. Gerald Holton,
a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard. "This
keeps our interest in science at some level even if we are deeply
troubled by some aspects of its technical misuse."
Polls by the National Science Foundation perennially identify
contradictions. Its latest numbers show that 90 percent of adult
Americans say they are very or moderately interested in science
discoveries. Even so, only half the survey respondents knew that the
Earth takes a year to go around the Sun.
"The easy answer is, `Oh, I'm interested,' " said Melissa Pollak, a
senior analyst at the National Science Foundation. "I'm not quite sure I
believe those responses."
The Battles Increase Over Darwin's Theory
A simple number jars many scientists: about two-thirds of the public
believe that alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution should be
taught in public schools alongside this bedrock concept of biology itself.
The organized opposition to the mainstream theory of evolution has
become vastly more sophisticated and influential than it was, say, 25
years ago. The leading foes of Darwin espouse a theory called
"intelligent design," which holds that purely random natural processes
could never have produced humans. These foes are led by a relatively
small group of people with various academic and professional
credentials, including some with advanced degrees in science and even
Backers of intelligent design say they are simply pointing up
shortcomings in Darwin's theory. Scientists have publicly rallied in
response, last week staving off an effort at the Texas State Board of
Education to have intelligent design taught alongside evolution.
"It just absolutely boggles the mind," said Dr. James Langer, a
physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who is vice
president of the National Academy of Sciences. "I wouldn't want my
doctor thinking that intelligent design was an equally plausible
hypothesis to evolution any more than I would want my airplane pilot
believing in the flat Earth."
Science has, in fact, sold itself from the start as something more than
a utilitarian exercise in developing technologies and medicines.
Einstein - who often used religious and philosophical language to
explain his discoveries - seemed to tell humanity something fundamental
about the fabric of existence. More recently, the cosmologist Stephen
Hawking said that discovering a better theory of gravitation would be
like seeing into "the mind of God."
Such rhetorical flourishes are as much derided as admired by the bulk of
working scientists, who as a culture have drifted closer to the thinking
of Steven Weinberg, another Nobel Prize winner in particle physics, who
famously wrote that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the
more it also seems pointless."
That almost militantly atheistic view helps some observers explain how
science has come into bitter conflict with particular religious groups,
especially biblical literalists.
"What accentuates the fault line," said Dr. Ernan McMullin, a Roman
Catholic priest who is a former director of the history and philosophy
of science program at Notre Dame, is that "the scientists see their
science being attacked and they immediately rush to the battlements."
"I think they rather enjoy seeing themselves as a persecuted minority
instead of as the dominant force in the culture, which they really are,"
Urgent Goals for Governments
Industry looks to short-term goals and has proven highly adept at using
science to take care of itself and consumers. A far more uncertain issue
is whether the federal government can successfully address issues of
human welfare that lie well beyond the industrial horizon ó years,
decades and even centuries ahead.
"Science is still the wellspring of new options," Dr. Gibbons said. "How
else are we going to face the issues of the 21st century on things like
the environment, health, security, food and energy?"
Some experts believe that despite the gnawing doubts today, the world
will be ever more inclined to seek scientific answers to those questions
in the decades to come. "It will probably accelerate," said Dr. John H.
Marburger III, President Bush's science adviser, "because it will become
increasingly obvious that we need this steady infusion of results to
sustain our ability to cope with all these social problems."
An urgent goal, experts say, is to develop new sources of energy, which
will become vitally important as oil becomes increasingly scarce.
Another is to better understand the nuances of climate change, for
instance, how the sun and ocean affect the atmosphere. Such work is in
its infancy. Another is to develop ways of countering the spread of
nuclear arms and germ weapons.
The world will also need a new science of cities, to help coordinate
planning in areas like waste, water use, congestion, highways, hazard
mitigation and pollution control.
"It's going to take a lot of work," said Dr. Grant Heiken, an editor of
"Earth Science in the City," a collection of essays just published by
the American Geophysical Union in Washington. The number of urban
dwellers is expected to grow from three billion now to five billion by 2025.
"I don't know if we'll get a new science," Dr. Heiken said, "but we damn
Dr. Richard E. Smalley, a Rice University professor and Nobel laureate
in chemistry, argues that new technologies and conservation can probably
solve the world's energy needs. But success, he said, requires a new
army of scientists and engineers.
Like others, Dr. Smalley worries about a significant shift in the
demographics of American graduate schools in science and engineering. By
1999, according to the latest figures from the National Science
Foundation, the number of foreign students in full-time engineering
programs had soared so high that it exceeded, for the first time, the
steeply declining number of Americans.
"Where the bright kids and the big action are is in Asia," Dr. Smalley
said. "That's great for them. It is not what I would hope for our
country and our economic well-being or our national security."
Whether the complex challenges of today generate a new era of scientific
greatness, several scientists said, may depend on how a deeply
conflicted public answers the question of whether science still matters.
In many ways, it all boils down to "a schism between people who have
accepted the modern scientific view of the world and the people who are
fighting that," said Dr. David Baltimore, the Nobel Prize-winning
biologist who is president of the California Institute of Technology.
"Scientists are presenting a much more complicated, much less ethically
grounded view of the world, and it's hard for people to take that in,"
Some experts warn that if support for science falters and if the
American public loses interest in it, such apathy may foster an age in
which scientific elites ignore the public weal and global imperatives
for their own narrow interests, producing something like a dictatorship
of the lab coats.
"For any man to abdicate an interest in science," Jacob Bronowski, the
science historian, wrote, "is to walk with open eyes towards slavery."