The Crisis of Contemporary Science

By Kevles, Daniel J. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Crisis of Contemporary Science


Kevles, Daniel J., The Wilson Quarterly


With the United States no longer engaged in war, hot or cold, American science is entering a new--and certain--age. The close relationship between science and government is being redefined. The exponential growth of the scientific enterprise is at an end. And science itself comes increasingly under attack. Our authors explain.

Not many years ago in the United States, the special relationship between science and government seemed as permanent as an old-fashioned marriage. Whatever one partner requested, the other was more than eager to provide.

In the early 1980s, for example, American physicists in the field of high-energy particle physics urged the Reagan administration to fund construction of a gargantuan high-energy particle accelerator--the Superconducting Super Collider, commonly called the SSC. In an underground, circular tunnel some 52 miles in circumference, two beams of protons would be accelerated in opposite directions, each to an energy of 20 trillion electron volts. The huge subterranean donut would encircle an area 160 times as great as that enclosed by the Tevatron, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, which is the country's flagship machine, spitting out particles at one trillion electron volts.

Enthusiasts of the SSC argued that it was essential to further progress in elementary particle physics. Not only would it guarantee the nation's strength in the field against all international competitors, but the technical innovations required to build the machine for example, more powerful superconducting magnets--would yield industrial and medical dividends long into the future. In 1987, the project won the support of the Reagan administration, and in 1989, Congress voted decisively to fund construction of the machine--it would be located in Waxahachie, Texas, near Dallas--at a cost of $5.9 billion.

Then, astonishingly, just three years later, the partnership faltered. In june 1992, the House of Representatives voted to terminate the SSC. The margin of defeat for the project was a hefty 51 votes. Scientists who supported the Collider were stunned. Forty physicists, including 21 Nobel laureates, expressed their shock and dismay in a letter to President George Bush and House members, pointing out the SSC's importance to America's scientific prowess. The Bush administration and the Senate then came to the project's rescue. The next year, however, the House tried again, and this time it succeeded. In October 1993, the SSC died, a victim of the post-Cold War outlook. Senator Dave Durenberger (R.-Minn.) explained the change in blunt terms: "If we were engaged in a scientific competition with a global superpower like the former Soviet Union, and if this project would lead to an enhancement of our national security, then I would be willing to continue funding the project. But ... we face no such threat."

Leading physicists were profoundly dismayed by the collider's demise. They variously declared that high-energy physics had no future in the United States, that the country .was relinquishing its role as a scientific leader, and that, as Roy Schwitters, the head of the project, remonstrated, "curiosity-driven science is [now regarded as] somehow frivolous and a luxury we can no longer afford." Some scientists, with a mixture of resentment and regret, declared that the long-standing partnership between American science and the federal government had come to an end.

In fact, it hadn't. But the alliance is being redefined. To understand what is happening, it is necessary to go back to the partnership's beginning.

During World War II, civilian scientists working under the auspices of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) achieved military miracles. The physicists--who produced microwave radar, proximity fuses, solid-fuel rockets, and the atomic bomb--were the most conspicuous of the scientists, but members of the OSRD Committee on Medical Research also brought off sever miracles, including the development of penicillin. …

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