FIVE SCIENTISTS DEFEND FEDERAL INVOLVEMENT
To the Editors of the CRIMSON:
In this letter we would like to reply to a number of questions raised by Mr.J.K.Glassman in two recent CRIMSON articles. We think it is unnecessary to argue that the natural sciences have a place at this university; they are no less humane than any other branch of knowledge. Although scientific discoveries have been misused, the possibility of exploitation is common to most knowledge worthy of transmission. We do believe that the misuse of science merits more attention than it has received. Many of us are working to remedy this failure. Scientists cannot be oblivious to the possible implications of their research. Indeed, they have a special obligation to inform themselves and the public of these implications.
Mr. Glassman, however, has directed his criticism primarily toward other questions. He is nostalgic for the less complex university of a by one era in which crucial contributions to knowledge could be made by isolated individuals with simple tools. He views with alarm the more extensive research programs now underway and fears that they have somehow been packaged for "sale" to the government. He suggests that federally supported research programs are not guests for knowledge, or that their results are less desirable and fundamental than other findings. He suspects that even though these research programs are not classified, their subjects have been dictated by the government to achieve immediate goals. He fears that this research threatens to drain the resources and distort the priorities of the university.
We believe it is important to allay some of these fears and correct some of these misapprehensions about research and teaching in the natural sciences. Almost invariably, research contracts and grants at this university originate with a professor or group of scholars who believe their project will lead to new and fundamental knowledge. Ordinarily their proposal is reviewed by scientists at other universities who are asked to judge it only on the basis of its scholarly merit. If the university has projects serving other ends, initiated directly or indirectly by its administration or the government, we have yet to learn about them.
We are not connected with the Cambridge Electron Accelerator which Mr. Glassman uses to illustrate some of his points. But we know enough about it to be certain that neither the physicists who proposed this project, nor the members of the Atomic Energy Commission who approved it, ever believed that it might contribute, even slightly, to weapon development. Furthermore, extraordinary care has been exercised to assure that expensive new scientific projects like the Accelerator do not commit the university to permanent investment. When they have outlived their usefulness these facilities will be eliminated far more easily than smaller ones contributed by private donors in the past.
Because most scientific research of fundamental significance promises no predictable economic reward, substantial industrial support for this research cannot be anticipated. Because experimental techniques have become extremely sophisticated and expensive, science needs a wealthy sponsor. In practice, only public funds can adequately support modern scientific research.
Both the university and the outside world gain from this arrangement. Research benefits from an academic environment in which problems can be freely chosen, methods widely discussed, and conclusions subjected to disinterested scrutiny. Instruction, at all levels, benefits from the newly acquired knowledge and from the flexible, resourceful, and openminded attitudes demanded by research. The best undergraduate courses are usually taught by the most creative and productive scientists; the best graduate training occurs in close collaboration with these scientists.
If the government withdrew its support a large fraction of the experimental research activities at this university would stop. Alternative support is simply unavailable. After the research activities had stopped, instruction would stagnate and degenerate. In the sciences, the university would be reduced to a college with a glorious past.
To say that we believe government support is indispensible to experimental research and has not diminished the integrity of this university is not to say that there is no basis for concern. New research projects that employ many people merit university-wide consideration even if no new departments or faculty appointments are involved.
Increased government funding requires increased vigilance. The faculty and the university administration may have to work more actively at educating government agencies and private donors. Both groups must continue to understand the importance of providing funds for scholarship that is neither mission-oriented nor politically motivated.
In short, we believe that serious discussion and criticism are in order, but that they require a better understanding of the nature of university teaching and research and a fuller appreciation of the real and more subtle problems posed by the need for outside support. Mr. Glassman concludes his May 13 article with the judgement that driving the federal government from the university "cannot be bad". We believe that the elimination of federal funds would be tragic. Paul C. Martin Professor of Physics Roy J. Glauber Professor of Physics Raymond Siever Professor of Geology Roy G. Gordon Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nicolaas Bloembergen Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics