I hitched a ride in Yugoslavia this summer with a mathematics professor at the University of Split. Even though he disagreed with some of his country's political policies, he loved Yugoslavia, and was resigned to living in a country where he was not always free to do what he wanted. "But I have math," he said as a smile broke over his face. "You can escape the evils of world politics in math."
Math professors at Harvard, however--and all other scientists here who receive money from the federal government--have recently found that they are unable to escape the evils of politics in math or for that matter in any science.
"It grows out of a basic misunderstanding by the government as to just what its role should be in supporting basic research," Everett I. Mendelsohn, associate professor of the History of Science, said recently.
And what grows out of that misunderstanding -- effort-reports, fund shortages due to the Vietnam war, and cases such as that of Berkeley mathematician Stephen Smale, whose grant renewal request was conditionally turned down by the National Science Foundation for what he charged were political considerations--threaten the entire relationship between the sciences and the federal government.
George W. Mackey, professor of Mathematics, foresaw these difficulties when government support of scientific research was just beginning. "Shortly after World War II, the government began to support summer research and travel expenses for conferences and visiting professors coming here," Mackey said in a recent interview. Mackey, one of the few Harvard mathematicians who has never accepted any regular government support, said that "even then the form under which support was given compromised, to me, the freedom and independence provided by the traditional academic approach to research."
"The problem was that the government was being very liberal," Mackey said, "and so the restrictions that were inherent in a government-financed research system did not come to light until cost-sharing and effort-reporting were instituted in 1966. Up until then, not many could be persuaded to be concerned."
Mackey, who chairs a special three-man committee of the American Mathematical Society which is attempting to get the effort-reporting requirement "romoved or changed," according to Mackey, is alone no longer. Very few people in the scientific community here are in favor of effort-reporting. At the very best it is considered to be a necessary evil.
"Government officials found instances where men on grants were spending federal money on personal trips and automobiles," George B. Kistiakowsky, research professor of Chemistry and former science adviser for President Eisenhower, explained recently. "These were examples of a minute minority. Now everybody is paying the price by having to fill out effort reports," he said.
When a scientist fills out an effort report, as many at Harvard are now reqqired to do each month, he reports to the government how much "effort" in percentage of his total working load he puts in on research supported by the government.
Kistiakowsky, having been in the government and still very much involved in scientific political dealings, acknowledged that "there is a very important question of accountability of federal funds."
Effort reports, however, are, as Mendelsohn put it, a "petty method" to account for government funds. "Our work cannot be so neatly divided," he said. Raoul Bott, professor of Mathematics, who like Mendelsohn must send effort reports to the NSF, concurred, adding that "these things compromise our integrity."
Like cost-sharing, which, as the name implies, is a process whereby the University foots part of the bill on government-sponsored research, effort-reporting is "borne out of the bookkeeper's mentality," Mendelsohn said. The two methods are not the way, he argued, that the inevitable responsibility to a government authority by scientists should be built into the system.
Richard G. Leahy, Harvard's co-ordinator for government relations and director of the laboratories of the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics, brought up another point against effort-reporting in a recent interview. "I feel that, because of the cost-sharing provision, effort-reporting has affected people who have just circumstantially become involved," he said. Mathematicians, for instance, who, for the most part, receive their government funds from the National Science Foundation, must file effort reports, since the NSF issues grants--as opposed to contracts--and therefore requires cost-sharing by the University. Harvard's share becomes a portion of the scientist's salary, and the scientist must therefore report on this money's use by filing effort reports with the government.