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.
But, merely because of the historical tradition of whether an agency gives grants or contracts--the only real difference being that contracts have no cost-sharing stipulations whereas grants do--scientists arbitrarily have to file effort reports. A man with a contract from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, for instance, is not involved with effort-reporting while a man with a NSF grant, with possibly very similar conditions, is.
To add to the problems raised by effort-reporting, an entirely different spectrum of problems has been raised by the war and the infamous Smale case. Complaints of political influences in the awarding of scientific grants and excessive defense spending causing a cutback in research allotments have been leveled in recent months at Harvard and elsewhere.
"The war in Vietnam is poisoning the atmosphere," Mendelsohn said. "It not only skews the directions in which government money goes, but, even more important, it also has created a tremendous distrust among scientists receiving grants from the government. They are now much more touchy about government supervision than they used to be."
Others at Harvard don't see the situation quite that politically. "Research budgets can be cut especially easily in Washington," Kistiakowsky said, "because science is not considered politically powerful. That is way,when we are in times of financial stringency such as we are now as a direct result of the war, research allocations are usually cut."
Emmanuel G. Mesthene, executive director of the University Program on Technology and Society, called the present situation a "lean" period. "The availability of scientific funds goes in waves," he said. "Sputnik, for instance, led to a fat period and the reins were loosened. The war in Vietnam, on the other hand, with its increased defense spending, has led to a lean period. I do not see an increasing trend of tightening reins in government support. We are simply in a lean period."
Actually, Harvard professors have not been significantly affected by this "lean" period. The tightening of government funds has primarily affected those colleges and universities where science professors actually receive part of their salaries from federal grants. At Harvard, no tenured professor receives any academic-year salary money from the government. But Harvard is an exception.
Leahy said that at most universities which receive government grants and contracts, some of the money is usually in the form of salary subsidies. Leahy explained that when a professor here files effort reports on his salary, as some math professors are required to do, his salary has not been paid, even in part, by the government. His salary payments are merely the University's share of the "cost-sharing" requirements.
Leahy sees Vietnam only as a peripheral issue in the problems of science's relations with Washington. "The only real tie-in with Vietnam," he said, "was when Stephen Smale stood up on the steps of Moscow University in the summer of 1966 and denounced the war." "Happily," he added, "Vietnam has played a very slight role in what has happened."
The Smale case deserves special attention. Smale, an internationally renowned topologist, traveled to Moscow in 1966 to deliver a major address at the 1966 International Congress of Mathematicians and to receive one of the Fields Medals, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.S In Moscow, Smale, pointing, as he put it, to "a real danger of a new McCarthyism in America," denounced both "American military intervention in Vietnam" as "horrible" as well as what he termed the "brutal intervening" of Russian troops in Hungary in 1956. 'Never," Smale said, "could I see justification for military intervention, 10 years ago in Hungary or now in the much more dangerous and brutal American intervention in Vietnam."
Smale was criticized in Congress and investigations were sought into government expenditures to scientists. Smale, who had traveled to Moscow on NSF money as well as private and personal funds, was accused of various infractions of NSF regulations. He was accused in various quarters of