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The Health of the Enterprise

Few human endeavors of the past half century can claim to have had the enormous success of research in science and engineering. The practical uses of the knowledge gained during this period are matched by the deeper understanding of nature and the universe that has resulted from research by hundreds of thousands of investigators. The whole enterprise can be regarded as one of the great success stories of the postwar period.

Why, then, has it become recently the subject of inquiry, almost of soul-searching? In February 1997, House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked Science Committee Chairman Vernon Ehlers to look into the state of science policy and the relationship between science and the public interest. Representative Ehlers's inquiry involved a series of hearings and produced a detailed report, possibly to be taken up again in the next Congress (Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy). But there has been more. A year ago, Jane Lubchenko raised related questions, focused, it must be noted, on environmental research (Science 279:491–97). Later in 1998, former Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines raised very basic questions about the enterprise (Science 280:1671). Finally, Representative George Brown, historically a strong friend of science, raised fundamental questions about the evaluation of the scientific effort and its social goals (Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July 1998, B4–B5).

Speaker Gingrich made his request for inquiry in the context of the end of the Cold War, noting that the nation had been operating since 1945 under the implicit social contract set forth in that talisman of American science policy, Science: The Endless Frontier, and surely the radically different global situation of the present time merits an assessment of the purposes and support of research. But there is a deeper undercurrent in these inquiries. All raise basic questions about the results of the research effort, about our ability to evaluate them and about the relation of the research enterprise to national policy. Underlying them may be sensed a concern about the vitality and vibrancy of the enterprise itself. Lubchenko questions the ability of the enterprise to confront the issues of the future. This seems tantamount to saying that we don't really know how strong and healthy it really is.

Nor should we overlook other indications of trouble. Despite relatively good budget news this year, competition for funds remains intense, to the point that researchers spend inordinate amounts of time seeking funds. Are budgets too small, or, perhaps, has the enterprise grown too large? How will enhanced research capabilities in other countries, and possible restrictions on access by our scientists and engineers to research facilities and locales, affect our efforts? With public understanding of science and technology no better today than it was 20 years ago, how robust is public support for the enterprise? How well will it survive an eventual economic downturn?

Such questions should be of concern not only to scientists and engineers, but also to all citizens. With suitable modifications, they are applicable to the scientific enterprises in other nations as well, as they face their own scientific and political challenges. The Sigma Xi Center plans a new program on the health of the research enterprise, establishing means for identifying the key issues involved in understanding its health and beginning, at least, the assessment of those issues. This program provides an opportunity for Sigma Xi to bring its strengths as an interdisciplinary, grass-roots organization to bear on issues that are critically important to the nation’s future.

John H. Moore
President, Sigma Xi

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