President Charles M. Vest was one of two university leaders who were asked to participate last week when Republican Congressional leaders released a science policy report calling for "a fine-tuning and rejuvenation" of federal support and public understanding of science and engineering in the post-Cold War political environment.
The report, "Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy" was requested a year and a half ago by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as a major action of the House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
The only physicist in Congress, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), was chosen to write the report and lead the September 24 news conference, which was attended by Speaker Gingrich; Rep. Sensenbrenner; Rep. George Brown (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the Science Committee; Dr. Vest; and Dr. Homer Neal, professor of physics and former acting president of the University of Michigan.
Rep. Ehlers said he asked Dr. Vest to be present "because he has been a chief encourager of this entire process. I have met with him a number of times." He said Dr. Neal was "the sparkplug that got it started" by pointing out that the nation had "a budget policy for science" rather than a science policy.
Rep. Ehlers referred to Vannevar Bush (SB 1916), the science advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and one-time MIT vice president who articulated the nation's science policy in his 1945 report, "Science: The Endless Frontier."
"Our challenge is actually twice as difficult as that which faced Vannevar Bush in 1945: we must maintain his legacy of excellence in groundbreaking research for which our science enterprise has become known, but in addition we must also take steps to explain the benefits of that research and make its results and benefits broadly known and available," Rep. Ehlers said.
The report said, "America has been particularly successful in capturing the benefits of the scientific and engineering enterprise, but it will take continued investment in this enterprise if we hope to stay ahead of our economic competitors in the rest of the world. Many of those challengers have learned well the lessons of our employment of the research and technology enterprise for economic gain.
"The United States of America must maintain and improve its pre-eminent position in science and technology in order to advance human understanding of the universe and all it contains, and to improve the lives, health and freedom of all peoples.
"The fact that keeping the enterprise healthy requires numerous actions and multiple steps is indicative of the complexity of the enterprise. The fact that we advocate not a major overhaul but rather a fine-tuning and rejuvenation is indicative of its present strength. It is also not something the Congress or even the federal government can do on its own--making these mid-course corrections will require the involvement of citizens and organizations from across the nation," the report said.
Dr. Vest, in his comments at the news conference, said, "What is important today is having the leadership of the US Congress being deeply engaged in assessing and promoting the strength and transitions of the US science and technology enterpriseï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ In this age, complacency is the enemy."
Dr. Vest emphasized "a few essential points addressed by the report. First, the federal government must continue to play its unique and essential role in sustaining the national commitment to a vital research enterprise, one deeply rooted in merit-based, competitive excellence.
"Second, we are entering rapidly a new era of partnerships among the federal government, state governments, industry, national laboratories, universities and increasingly, foreign partners. The global economy simply requires the development of such experiments and new modes of cooperation. The new report, 'Going Global' by the Council on Competitiveness, documents all of this clearly. These changes should be welcomed, not feared.
"Third, the historic linkage between federally sponsored research and education in our universities is the very heart of the enterprise. The research and education link is the key to our future success. Universities must continue to perform this unique mission responsively and to high standards of excellence," Dr. Vest said.
"Fourth, our entire education system, from preschool through graduate school, must reflect a national commitment to excellence. We simply must persist in making the changes required up and down the entire system.
"Finally, we in the science and engineering communities should welcome the challenge of better recognizing our responsibility to the society and governments that support us. In particular, we must become more adept at explaining what we do, how we do it and why it is important," Dr. Vest said.
The report raised the profile of state-based economic development partnerships to advance science, technology and economic growth. "Because state-based economic development partnerships are far better suited to take on a greater role in this area, we have described some of their unique skills and outlined some of the ways they are already doing so," the report said.
"The challenges we face today cause us to propose that the scientific and engineering enterprise ought to move towards center stage in a fourth role: that of helping society make good decisions. We believe this role for science will take on increasing importance, particularly as we face difficult decisions related to the environment. Accomplishing this goal will require, among other things, the development of research agendas aimed at analyzing and resolving contentious issues, and will demand closer coordination among scientists, engineers, and policy makers."
On international collaborations, the report said, "It is increasingly in our national interest to participate in international scientific collaborationsï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ Not only will our participation reap direct benefits to our own research, but it will help spread the scientific ethos of free inquiry and rational decision-making worldwide and help us realize our vision of improving the lives, health and freedom of all peoples."
Although he attended the news conference, Rep. Brown, the senior Democrat on the House Science Committee, criticized the report for paying too little attention to engineering and the social sciences, as opposed to the "hard sciences." He said the report fails to identify the "specific social needs that science can help us remedy."
The report is available on line at <http://www.house.gov/science/science_policy_study.htm>.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 30, 1998.