Past and Prologue:
Representative George E. Brown, Jr.
In my discussions with the science and engineering community, I have advocated change in two areas. First, I have asked scientists and engineers to become more involved with the political process and the broader societyin other words, to be more effective citizens. Second, I have challenged every one of us involved in science, engineering, and public policy to rethink our assumptions and make needed reforms in how we operate. I want to reissue these challenges and note some specific areas that call for attention.
I will be very frank. First, because I am getting too old and cranky to allow politeness to obscure the message I am trying to send, but also because we are facing a set of very tough policy issues that demand our attention as fully as any issues in recent history. These issues challenge the status quo and generate a great deal of discussion and energy. Unfortunately, too often the discussions take place in the halls outside of scientific meetings, and the energy is directed at excising or softening mention of these issues in AAAS reports or National Academy of Sciences (NAS) science policy studies. The time has come for open, frank, and thorough examination of the challenges to be overcome if we are to continue our pace of progress into the next century.
Let me preface all of this by clearly stating my deep admiration for all that the science, engineering, and academic community has accomplished. We have created a wondrous understanding of our universe, opened new vistas of opportunity for every human on Earth, and, at least for the moment, managed to end a period of global confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union that had endured, and endangered the human race, for the last 50 years. We are perched on the edge of a new millennium, with society enjoying previously unheard of advances in human knowledge that science and engineering helped create.
No area of human knowledge remains untouched by the developments of science and technology in the past 50 years. The biological sciences have been transformed, and miraculous biotechnology applications have become commonplace. Physics has been through the nuclear age and looks for new worlds to conquer. Information science and technology has given new meaning to the term "one world," a meaning undreamed of when that term was first coined. Astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, gravitational science, and solar exploration have each become robust and exciting research fields that are creating jobs here on Earth.
My remarks are driven by a realization of these accomplishments and reflect my optimism for the future. But that attitude is tempered by the knowledge that we will not achieve our promise unless we reevaluate and reform our system of research and education and the integration of new knowledge into society. With every advance humankind makes, we are required to achieve a higher standard of performance. It is that higher standard that I want to address. We must, as science always does, challenge existing theories and strive to push our understanding and our world view further out.
My remarks also come from an increasing realization that we are on the cusp of a number of changes in the way we conduct our research and education activities.
As exciting and challenging as it is to be in the midst of all of this change, our research and academic enterprise, however, is anticipating little of it. It provides little leadership in setting goals for change and thus may even project a public attitude of being resistant to it. The enterprise seems to be resting on its past success, idolizing its current organization and operations and hoping that inertia will carry it into the 21st Century. We employ a passive, post-hoc justification for our activities to compensate for the lack of a valid system of performance metrics. We take a narrow view of our responsibility to society in the transformations that we cause. We have no foresight or planning operation in place that would tell us how to define, measure, or achieve greater success. We have no real sense of how to conceptualize social and economic systems or subsystems and describe their linkages. And we have no clearly defined values for our enterprise that are sufficiently visionary to justify the public confidence and support that we seek for our science and technology efforts.
Scientists testify that the basic research funded yesterday in agency X resulted in new product Y. But they refuse to take responsibility for any unplanned social consequences of that product and avoid predicting tomorrow's outcomes of today's research. Many science and technology groups eagerly offer observations on or criticisms of federal science funding or they provide suggestions on how their favored programs could be enhanced. But these groups run to the hills when asked to provide their own "ideal" budget and identify spending offsets or revenue sources. In order to avoid being justifiably scalded for inadequate mentoring and counseling of Ph.D.s, the scientific community points out how many physicists happened onto jobs modeling stocks on Wall Street. It is as if these serendipitous events justify the public's investment, let alone the student's personal investment, over 8 or more years of graduate study.
We shy away from the difficult work of developing qualitative measures for our efforts, leaving us with simple, quantitative means to evaluate our success in science and academia. An individual researcher is measured by the number of publications or citations, the amount of research dollars obtained, or the number of graduate students mentored. Universities are similarly ranked by quantity. For example, the Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions is based on a simple measure of input of research dollars and output of Ph.D.s. However, when the policy process tries to impose its own evaluation measures, as is happening with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) or with state efforts to impose performance-based appropriations, these measures are resisted as being too simplistic to determine the qualitative aspects of the system. All of this leaves us with a clumsy and unsophisticated set of tools for evaluating the best of human innovation and thinking.
At the end of the day, few assessments of outcomes are being done for any of our science and engineering education activities. As a result, what passes for policy analysis is too often a set of simple assumptions that we passively accept as truth, absent an adequate means of evaluation.
This can lead to problems, such as the one examined in the report issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, The Undergraduate Experience. This publication describes undergraduates at research universities across the country as "second-class citizens" who are herded into dull classes taught by inexperienced faculty and given little academic guidance or support. The report accuses the universities of devoting too much attention to faculty research and graduate students, while neglecting the needs of undergraduates, especially freshmen, whose tuition provides the campuses with most of their income. These are sobering statements, but evidence of a situation that has been allowed to languish due to the lack of a vigorous system of evaluation.
I doubt that anyone would sign on to a research project as poorly designed as our current national experiment in science and technology policy. It would be intolerable to run an experiment without a clearly defined problem statement or thesis, without fully identified variables, using inadequate measurement tools, and being forced to use increasingly outdated algorithms while running the whole operation amidst such uncontrolled and undefined change. Yet that pretty much sums up our current situation. It has worked out well for many individuals and institutions, but not according to any clearly articulated plan or design.
But even if we were to solve these shortcomings in the operations and evaluations of our current system, we would still be left without a clear set of social goals against which these activities would be measured. Even if we develop a perfect operating system with a perfectly designed evaluative process, our scientific enterprise remains adrift, without a connection to the broader society. If we believe our own rhetoric, we have to assume that the state of our knowledge allows us to envision unheard-of transformations. Given that we can completely transform the world with our knowledge, we are morally compelled to answer the question, "What is the end that we seek?"
And in this consideration we must truly take a global view. While the end of the Cold War has freed us to move in new directions, it has also eliminated an easy justification for our science and engineering efforts. Information and communications technologies are on the verge of unifying the globe in new ways. Voice-oriented personal communications satellite systems will be available later this year, and Internet-capable satellite systems soon after. These technologies start to make definitions of national boundaries and national identities obsolete and, coming at a time when individual governments can no longer go it alone on large science undertakings, are opening up vast new opportunities for international collaboration of all kinds. At the same time, many countries that used to depend on our research for their economic gain are imitating our success and starting to develop their own research-university systems, further expanding opportunities for international research collaboration. These emerging international conditions are not being adequately accounted for in our national science and technology policy, let alone included in a discussion of goals and values for research and education.
Domestic transformations are occurring as well, with many of them due to economic change driven by applications of new knowledge. But our economic well-being masks an old set of problems that are made worse in a technology-based society.
People who are simply standing still will be left further behind as the pace of scientific discovery continues to accelerate. The shortcomings of our K-12 education system make this a dangerous situation, and in many states one-third to one-half of the incoming college students require remedial education.
This knowledge gap leads to grave divisions in the distribution of the benefits generated by a knowledge-based society. From 1977 to 1994, even before the current economic boom, the income of the top fifth of society went up 20 percent in constant dollars (the top 1 percent of our society gained 72 percent!) while the income of the middle fifth stagnated and the bottom fifth declined 16 percent. As we right-size and replace permanent jobs with temporary positions, we increasingly resemble a feudal state with a serf class of part-time and contract workers employed by a class of owners. (I note parenthetically that 40 percent of higher education faculty are contract, part-time, or adjunct faculty.) Without permanent benefits, the serfs have little chance of gaining ownership and thus little chance of profiting from the boom on Wall Street. It is sobering to observe that only 40 percent of Americans own stocks or mutual funds, even in their retirement systems.
This income gap shows up on campus as students are increasingly dependent on student loans. Public grant programs are drying up and many institutions are shifting scholarships from a needs-based focus to use them as recruiting tools in order to attract bright students to help university rankings or well-off students to improve institutional cash flow. For the first 5 years of the 1990s, the outstanding student debt equaled the total student debt from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s combined. Alarmingly, the rate of debt increase for minorities was twice the rate for white students, a data point that grows in importance as affirmative action programs come under attack. Faced with the need to pay back large debts, some people may not go to college or, upon graduation, opt out of the additional debt of a graduate degree in science or engineering.
We cannot continue in this direction much longer. This is the richest nation in human history, yet a black teenage male in the United States has a higher chance of being sent to prison than graduating from college. These and a host of other depressing statistics hidden behind our current celebration reveal the nagging problems we face. This situation leads, on one hand, to social unrest and instability, conditions that will threaten our continued economic well-being (and which in past ages brought down the beauty that was Greece and the glory that was Rome). On the other hand, those people left technologically disenfranchised constitute underutilized human resources. They could have been brought along through better education and training to perform the high-technology jobs that companies now seek immigrant scientists and engineers to fill.
At this point, you may wonder where the optimism is that the title of this chapter promised. I have laid out the problems we face. Now, what do we do?
First, let me state again that all of what I say is driven by my optimism. If I did not think this system could realize its great potential, I would not have delivered the Carey Lecture. Most of the change taking place in the world is positive, even though it may disrupt the status quo that the United States finds so rewarding. The Cold War is over and the financial and intellectual resources that were focused on that 40-year stalemate are now freed up to be more fully devoted to social progress. Telecommunications advances and economic relationships are uniting the world in ways that make future global conflicts less probable. The internationalization of science and technology moves us toward cooperative global ventures that, while they will affect our unchallenged lead in many areas, are likely to produce a greater level of human advance. Domestically, the deficit beast is back in its lair and we now have the luxury of developing a new science and technology policy that is not driven by the budget.
But the challenge is how to address the issues I detailed above using the options presented to us by the positive changes taking place. Let me throw out a few suggestions to stimulate thinking.
First, I will address the international front. I will dust off an old suggestion I made around the time of the Superconducting Super Collider debates and the early Space Station controversies. We should systematically review outstanding science needs, plans, and opportunities around the globe in order to create a multidisciplinary directory of science and technology initiatives. From this list we should plan a comprehensive series of collaborative agreements wherein we could work with international partners on the development of these projects, including their siting, burden-sharing, and so on. As we enter an international age of science, it makes no sense to continue our ad hoc, item-by-item approach to international collaboration. I have even suggested that a special office in the State Department be empowered to negotiate these comprehensive agreements.
On a related topic, I am aware of a great number of cooperative science agreements that we have signed that we have not funded. I have suggested, and have discussed with the Appropriations Committee, an amendment that would prohibit us from negotiating international science agreements until and unless we have the funding to make good on these agreements. In an age of global science collaboration, we cannot afford to develop a reputation as an unreliable partner.
Along these lines, I believe that it is time to establish a range of multilateral research foundations, self-funding operations that live off their endowments (like the U.S.-Israel research programs). In this way science can be directed toward common human goals, rather than driven by the national policies of any single government. The major impediment to this progress is the outdated, Cold War-era foreign policy mindsets in foreign ministries and the Departments of State, a situation on which organizations such as AAAS need to focus.
On the domestic front, I have a number of proposals to help overcome our passive approach to science and technology policy. First, I think that the science and engineering community should work toward the development of an entity to perform broad forecasting and technology assessment work. The biggest mistake that the Republican majority in Congress has made was eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Without it, we have no place to integrate technology with social impact and are left blind on a host of complicated issues. I note that Europe is replete with national technology assessment organizations of various types, mostly stimulated by our experiment with OTA. Now we are conspicuous among developed nations in having abandoned this needed function. I ask that AAAS, the National Research Council, Sigma Xi, or some other broad national scientific organization undertake a scoping study to see what need exists and how such a national entity might operate.
If GPRA and performance-based funding are not appropriate measures of quality in research and academia, and I have my doubts, what is? We need better productivity or quality measures for our research activities, both to guide needed reforms and to have concrete justifications when the public asks, "What are we getting for all of this?" The science and engineering community should take the lead in developing qualitative standards, with strong participation from the broader society. This is the best way to avoid having inappropriate measurement tools imposed upon you. Further, the exercise will help create needed connections to the broader society.
We also need to conduct outcomes assessments for our science and engineering activities and we need to collect the data needed to make these assessments. For example, we have no idea how much of the roughly $12 billion that we spend on academic research goes to support graduate education because grantees are not required to report whether they in fact hired the research assistants that they proposed to hire in their grant applications. The question of whether we are spending enough, too much, or too little to support graduate education cannot be answered at present because we lack the data.
Graduate student employment outcomes also need to be reported more widely and should be used to assess universities, university departments, and individual laboratories. There is no reason that graduate students, parents, legislators, and the general public should not have data on the professional placement of graduates 3 and 5 years after degree in order to help make personal and policy decisions on the state of graduate education. Also, postdoctoral positions should be clearly identified and not tucked among general employment headings. Higher education is one of the three or four major investments a person makes in a lifetime. We don't invest in the stock market or buy a house without adequate information about our potential investment. Why do we tolerate inadequate performance information about our higher education investments?
At this point I was going to also make some suggestions about the relationship between research and education at the university level, but I feel that the recent report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which I mentioned above, has been adequately thought provoking.
Next, I ask that AAAS, NAS, or some other respected multidisciplinary group develop a normative science budget. We repeatedly hear reaction to the President's budget and to this bill or that legislation, and we hear how Congress needs to develop a rational priority-setting process for science and technology funding. Congress does have a rational priority-setting system. Unfortunately it is largely ZIP-code based: Anything close to my district or state is better than something farther away. Individual colleges and universities and many federal labs know this system well and have used it to their advantage for decades.
But if the science, engineering, and academic community is serious about having a different priority-setting process, the political system will need guidance from it. Unless you help develop the values (again, involving representatives of the broader society) and use them to develop a budget road map, we will be stuck with our present system. I went through the process of developing an investment-based budget last year and learned a great deal about budget priorities and politics. The fact that this process was so painfully informative leads me to call upon the research community to finish the work that it started in its reports on priority-setting for science funding and develop its own value-based budget.
On the issue of budget priorities, I recently raised an issue that I am sure is being discussed by members of AAAS: Is the rate of increase in funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) too rapid? The recently passed FY 1999 Senate Budget Resolution, which generally treats research funding unfavorably, would have NIH's budget grow to 51 percent of all civilian research and development funding, up from about 38 percent today. One is led to ask if that is a good balance.
In our Democratic "Views and Estimates" on the budget we suggested that some of the large increase proposed for NIH might be transferred to other science accounts that needed additional resources, hoping to spark some discussion about priority-setting. Since no response seems to be forthcoming, let me speak more plainly and help focus and extend your conversations.
I am concerned that we are not carefully observing and publicly discussing the sustainability of the growth in biomedical research. The number of biomedical Ph.D.s and the capacity of biomedical Ph.D. programs around the country are growing in direct response to increased federal funding. This is producing flat to declining rates of successful research applications at NIH, shrinking grant sizes measured in constant dollars, and increasing times to first position in biomedical disciplines, time spent in postdoctoral positions, times to first federal funding, and so on. Similar patterns could be found in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and some engineering disciplines during the boom days of defense research in the 1980s. We all know what happened in those fields when funding flattened.
I propose that we use biomedical research as a case study to see what the impacts of generous federal funding are when delivered using our current systems of incentives and rewards for research and our current approaches to graduate education. I know that Dr. Harold Varmus at NIH has some of these same concerns and I commend him for his attention to this issue. For the broader scientific community, such an inquiry may reveal that the answer to every science policy question is not simply, "More money!"
I would also find a comprehensive study of the priority-setting process in the health sciences very interesting. For example, most of the major health problems facing society are driven by behavioral choices: smoking-related disease, alcohol-related disease, diet-related disease, suicide, homicide, accidents, and AIDS from intravenous drug use and unprotected sex. If we were using this priority list to drive health research, we would create a very large "Institute of Behavioral Sciences" to capitalize on the high public health payback resulting from changed lifestyle choices. We would place less research emphasis on elegant curative approaches and put a higher priority on mundane behavioral modification. This example, while simplistic, illustrates the results that confront us as we examine our system for priority-setting in research.
In another critical area, I suggest that in order to build bridges to the general public and to hear their concerns we should diversify our various science policy and advisory boards. We need more involvement by the general public in our science and engineering activities. Putting lay people on advisory boards is one way to accomplish this. We have experience with lay representatives on technical bodies and they have been generally favorable; the recombinant DNA advisory committee comes to mind as one example. I would also diversify these boards by age and make sure that young scientists and engineers are adequately represented on advisory entities, within government, at laboratories and universities, and within professional societies. This is especially critical for any inquiry into the future directions of science since the pace of change makes past experience in education and research increasingly outdated.
I want to suggest one final point of action. The scientific community should review the present reward and incentive system in order to reinforce the needed changes revealed by all of this inquiry. It is pointless for any of us to speak of reforms that emphasize a stronger role for education if a faculty member is judged mainly by the research that he or she performs. It is meaningless to speak of cooperative or interdisciplinary research if the rewards system discourages this behavior. All of the partners in this enterprisefunding agencies, research institutions, and universitiesneed to review our present reward and incentive system to make it reinforce the needed adaptation and change.
Now I am sure that there are other specific actions we could take to reach the promise held by our system of research and education. I am also sure that having made these suggestions many in the science and engineering community will think that I have, once again, abandoned reason and my support for science. Let me conclude by dispelling that thought.
I offer these remarks out of pride and optimism. I am proud to have played a small part (at least to have been an observer in the policy process) in many of the advances made during my time in Congress. We have used science to vanquish most of the demons that have confronted free thinking and open inquiry. We have made it possible for remote villages to connect to the rest of society for the first time, moving closer to the concept of the Noosphere, a global knowledge-linkage of every being on Earth cooperating on one grand undertaking. We have made physical and temporal limits to our existence increasingly meaningless.
But having risen to a new level of accomplishment, we are hindered in our progress by the system we have outgrown. Simultaneous with our celebrations of advancements, the system we employed is revealed to have narrow vision, simple structure, and crude methods, as we move into the more sophisticated world it created. And so we gradually realize that the methods of inquiry we have employed for the last 50 years are transformed by the understanding that they have generated. Given the transcendent nature of the knowledge that has emerged, we can ill afford to let ego or convenience cloud our vision on what we need to do next. To simply be content with the status quo would be an abdication of the responsibility accepted by humanity when it first set out upon this quest of knowledge.
Our responsibility to our predecessors and our commitment to what we now call "scientific method" is described most eloquently by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough, written in 1922:
We stand upon the foundation reared by generations that have gone before and we can but dimly realize the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, not a very exalted one after all, which we have reachedThe amount of new knowledge which one age, certainly which one man, can add to the common store is small, and it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been [our] privilege to add to itWe are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not willful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence, which we ourselves may one day stand in need of: cum excusatione itaque veteres audiendi sunt [it is with good reason, then, that old people must be heard].
These are the simple challenges I lay before you. And don't blame me for raising these issues; blame your genius whose excellence raised the standards for success.
Representative George E. Brown, Jr., Member, U.S. House of Representatives (DCA), is ranking minority member of the Committee on Science. This article is based on the William D. Carey Award Lecture delivered at the 23rd Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, held April 29May 1, 1998, in Washington, DC.