Politics of Science

May 26, 1978

Report Outline
Science Under Political Attack
The Public's Role in Science
Approaches to Reconciliation
Special Focus

Science Under Political Attack

Scientists' Fear That Support is Eroding

Many American scientists believe they are in trouble with the public. In particular, they are troubled about public support for basic research — the search for new knowledge and understanding of fundamental natural phenomena and processes. Scientists sense that what was once a warm and trusting acceptance of the role of science has turned into cold skepticism. Scientists say they fear that the terms of the implicit agreement between the sciences and the public that permitted unfettered freedom and generous helpings of public funds may be changing toward greater participation of non-scientists in making science policy. And they fear that new arrangements may result in less freedom for them, less money for their work, and fewer benefits for society.

Biologist David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize laureate, recently spoke of a developing backlash “in which various groups in our society question whether the freedom that has characteristically been granted to research biologists by a permissive public required modification.”

The National Science Board, a group of scientists appointed by the President to advise the National Science Foundation, polled the leaders of American science for a 1976 report entitled “Science at the Bicentennial: A Report from the Research Community.” The scientists who responded said they believed that public attitudes toward science were increasingly hostile and could lead to conditions the scientists deplored: fewer dollars for basic research, more government red tape, and limits on the freedom of scientists to study whatever they please. Oregon State University President Robert MacVicar told the board: “I do not think that it is enough to chalk this up as some kind of temporary aberration of anti-intellectualism,…it appears to be…a very serious breach of confidence between those who must support basic science in the United States and the scientific community.”

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