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 1960's. "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 rationality. "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 Christian faith. "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? The Context 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 particle accelerator. "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. The Contradictions 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 Competition 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 university professorships. 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," he said. The Future 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 well better." 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," he added. 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."