• U.S.

Crisis in The Labs

21 minute read
Leon Jaroff

Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.

— Vannevar Bush, presidential science adviser in Science: The Endless Frontier, 1945

It was the glory of America. In the decades following World War II, U.S. science reigned supreme, earning the envy of the world with one stunning triumph after another. Fostered by the largesse of a government swayed by Vannevar Bush’s paean to science, it harnessed the power of the atom, conquered polio and discovered the earth’s radiation belt. It created the laser, the transistor, the microchip and the electronic computer, broke the genetic code and conjured up the miracle of recombinant DNA technology. It described the fundamental nature of matter, solved the mystery of the quasars and designed the robot craft that explored distant planets with spectacular success. And, as promised, it landed a man on the moon.

Now a sea change is occurring, and it does not bode well for researchers — or for the U.S. While American science remains productive and still excels in many areas, its exalted and almost pristine image is beginning to tarnish.

European and, to a lesser extent, Japanese scientists have begun to surpass their American counterparts. In the U.S. the scientific community is beset by a budget squeeze and bureaucratic demands, internal squabbling, harassment by activists, embarrassing cases of fraud and failure, and the growing alienation of Congress and the public. In the last decade of the 20th century, U.S. science, once unassailable, finds itself in a virtual state of siege.

“The science community is demoralized, and its moans are frightening off the young,” says Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “You have never seen such a depressed collection of people,” says Stephen Berry, a University of Chicago chemist. “It’s the worst atmosphere in the scientific community since I began my career more than 30 years ago.”

In public perception, at least, that atmosphere has been fouled by a multitude of headline-grabbing incidents:

— The federal researcher at whose urging Times Beach, Mo., was permanently evacuated in 1982 because of a dioxin scare has conceded that the draconian action was a mistake and that newer data suggest dioxin is far less toxic than previously believed. While some environmental scientists dispute the conclusion, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched a review of its strict dioxin standards, leaving the public confused about what to believe.

— In space, the inexcusable myopia of the $1.5 billion Hubble telescope, the balky antenna that endangers the $1.3 billion Galileo mission to Jupiter, and even the Challenger disaster and the shuttle’s subsequent troubles gave space science a bad name — notwithstanding the fact that the failures resulted not from scientific errors but largely from managerial blunders and budgetary constraints.

— The circus atmosphere that accompanied last year’s announcement that cold fusion had been achieved, the subsequent debate among scientists and the eventual widespread rejection of the claim evoked public exasperation and ridicule in the press.

— Nobel laureate David Baltimore’s stubborn refusal to concede that data reported by a former M.I.T. colleague in an immunology paper Baltimore had co- signed was fraudulent, and the shoddy treatment of the whistle blower who spotted the fraud aroused public suspicion about scientific integrity. Worse, from the viewpoint of scientists, it brought about an investigation by Michigan Democrat John Dingell’s House subcommittee and fears of more federal supervision of science. By the time Baltimore finally apologized for his role in the affair, the damage to science’s image had been done.

— Another Dingell probe, which revealed that Stanford University had charged some strange items to overhead expenses funded by federal science grants, mortified university president Donald Kennedy, led to his resignation and raised questions about misuse of funds at other universities. “I challenge you to tell me,” said Dingell, “how fruitwood commodes, chauffeurs for the university president’s wife, housing for dead university officials, retreats in Lake Tahoe and flowers for the president’s house are supportive of science.”

— A long-running and unseemly dispute between Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Dr. Robert Gallo of the NIH over who had first identified the AIDS virus raised public doubts about the motives and credibility of scientists. Those concerns remained when Gallo conceded that through inadvertent contamination, the virus he identified had been isolated from a sample sent him by the Frenchman. Last week the journal Science revealed that a draft of a forthcoming NIH report about the affair criticizes Gallo and accuses one of his colleagues of scientific misconduct.

— Bowing to the demands of pro-lifers, the Bush Administration continued a ban on federal funding for fetal-cell transplants, despite the fact that the use of such tissue has shown promising results in treating Parkinson’s disease and other disorders. Frustrated U.S. researchers watched helplessly as their European counterparts moved ahead on medical applications of fetal tissue.

— In several raids on research laboratories, animal-rights activists destroyed equipment and “liberated” test animals, setting back experiments designed to improve medical treatment for humans. Activists using legal means, such as picketing and newspaper ads, successfully brought pressure on some laboratories to improve treatment of test animals. But others campaigned to halt virtually all animal experimentation, a ban that would cripple medical research. All told, the animals-rights movement has led to a false public perception that medical researchers are generally callous in their treatment of test animals or at least indifferent to their welfare.

— Although gadfly activist Jeremy Rifkin failed in a legal attempt to delay the first human-gene-therapy experiment last year, he skillfully used the courts to set back by months, and even years, other scientific trials involving genetically engineered organisms or substances. His success in obstructing genetic experiments came despite the fact that in every case, his warnings of dire consequences proved to be unfounded. Favorable coverage of his views in some newspapers and on TV heightened public misgivings about genetic research.

To many researchers, however, the single greatest threat to U.S. science, and a source of many of its troubles, is money — or a lack of it. That view came into sharp focus in January when Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman, the newly elected president of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, issued what he called his “cry of alarm.”

Lederman, former head of Fermilab, the high-energy physics center in Illinois, had conducted a survey of research scientists in 50 universities. Most of the nearly 250 responses, he reported, came from demoralized and underfunded researchers who foresaw only a bleak future for their disciplines and their jobs. “I haven’t seen anything like this in my 40 years in science,” Lederman said. “Research, at least the research carried out in universities, is in very serious trouble.” And that, he warned, “raises serious questions about the very future of science in the U.S.”

By Lederman’s calculations, if inflation is taken into account, federal funding in 1990 for both basic and applied scientific research in universities & was only 20% higher than in 1968, while the number of Ph.D.-level scientists working at the schools doubled during the same time period. In other words, twice as many researchers are scrambling for smaller pieces of a slightly bigger pie. The competition for financing has forced scientists into fundraising efforts at the expense of research and has led to angry exchanges over what kind of work should have priority. It has also forced researchers to propose “safe” projects with an obvious end product.

Those restraints are clearly detrimental to the bold and innovative research that has made American science great. Lederman’s solution: “We should be spending twice as much as we did in 1968.”

For his alarm, and especially for his proposed cure, Lederman was not immediately overwhelmed by acclaim — either from fellow scientists or from Congress. The Bush Administration had already requested a generous increase in the science budget, critics noted. Lederman’s call for a doubling of financial support at a time of severe budgetary restraint, they charged, made scientists seem petty and self-serving and suggested that they are out of touch with the country’s political realities. In fact, only last year congressional budgeteers agreed to limit spending growth for domestic discretionary funding, in effect making science a “zero-sum” category. This meant that increases for one scientific project, for example, might have to come out of the hide of another.

“I don’t think that ((Lederman’s)) argument was very good,” says Harvey Brooks, a Harvard science-policy expert. “Scientists are having a hard time, and so are the homeless. You have to justify science because it is doing something good for society.” Even Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), agrees on the need for restraint. “No nation can write a blank check for science,” he says. “In a very tight deficit year, we may have to make some choices.”

In June the House of Representatives made a choice, and it did not sit well with scientists. The House voted to designate $1.9 billion of NASA’s fiscal 1992 budget to continued work on the proposed space station, which could eventually cost as much as $40 billion. Because of the budgetary restraints, that money may be cut from other projects supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). And two huge science ventures are already siphoning off significant chunks of the federal budget: the Human Genome Project, a 15- year, $3 billion program to identify and map all 50,000 to 100,000 genes and determine the sequence of the 3 billion code letters in human DNA; and the superconducting supercollider, a high-energy particle accelerator to be built in Texas at an estimated cost of $8.2 billion.

Several planned NASA science projects could immediately suffer or even be eliminated because of the space-station vote. They include the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby mission, in which an unmanned spacecraft would make close approaches to Comet Kopff and an unnamed asteroid; the Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility, which will investigate X-ray sources in space; and the Earth Observing System for weather and pollution studies.

Scientists were dismayed. Daniel Kleppner, an M.I.T. physicist, pointed out that the money spent on the space station this year will be almost as much as the total fiscal 1990 NSF budget, a major source of federal funding for all the sciences except biomedicine. Writing in The Sciences, the publication of the New York Academy of Sciences, he expressed his indignation: “It seems incredible that the government can spend billions on such flawed projects while allowing the world’s greatest scientific institutions to decline for lack of relatively modest funds.”

By one standard, at least, the troubles of American science are not that obvious at first glance: the Nobel science awards for the past few decades have been dominated by Americans. For example, 14 of the 25 Nobel Prizes for Physics between 1980 and 1990 went to Americans. But 13 of those 14 awards were for work done many years ago. Most of the Nobels for more recent research have gone to Europeans. “It appears that American science is coasting on its reputation,” says Kleppner. “Today Europe is beginning to run away with the honors.”

Physics is not the only discipline that is hurting. Harvard’s pioneering biologist E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, is concerned that the dwindling supply of federal grant money to individual scientists is changing the very nature of research. A quarter-century ago, he says, grants were far more generous, and a higher percentage of proposals got funded. “In those days,” he recalls, “a young scientist could still get a grant based on a promising but partly formulated idea or fragmentary result.” Today, Wilson laments, there is far less interest in funding such marginal and daring proposals.

Physicist Nicholas Samios, director of Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island, has also witnessed a negative effect among people on his staff. “When funding gets tight,” he says, “people get more conservative and bureaucratic. You don’t want to make mistakes. You want to make certain you do the right thing. But to have science flourish, you want people who take chances.”

These days scientists often pick their fields of research with an eye to the whims of funding agencies. That was precisely what Jim Koh, a University of Michigan graduate student in human genetics, had in mind when he chose to specialize in cystic fibrosis. Research on the disorder, funded in part by the private Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, is less affected by federal budget problems than many other fields. “Fundability is a real factor in my thinking,” Koh admits.

Other young scientists are not so fortunate. University jobs are hard to find, and because of tight budgets will not become more plentiful until the older professors, the majority of them hired in the bountiful, go-go 1960s, retire. When a university slot does open, hundreds of graduate students may apply for it. Industry too has little to offer newly graduated scientists. Saddled with debt and under pressure to turn out favorable quarterly reports, it has cut back on money spent for research and development.

All this is disillusioning to promising young scientists. At 34, Norman Carlin, an evolutionary biologist who has been a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard since 1986, is giving up. “Last year I decided I would go through one more year of this fruitless and humiliating attempt to get work,” he says. “Well, I didn’t get a single job offer from 20 universities — and I got into every law school I applied to. So I decided to go where I was wanted for a change.” When he earns a law degree, Carlin hopes to specialize in environmental law. “I had tremendous fun doing science,” he says, “and I’m bitterly sorry I won’t be able to do it anymore.”

All too aware of the dearth of job opportunities at research universities, senior faculty members are faced with a dilemma. “When undergraduates come to me looking for career advice,” says Dr. James Wilson, a gene-therapy expert at the University of Michigan, “I have to think long and hard about advising them to be scientists.” Justified as it is, that kind of thinking alarms M.I.T.’s Kleppner. “If America’s senior scientists cannot, in good conscience, persuade the next generation to follow in their own footsteps,” he warns, “the nation is finished scientifically.”

Money is so tight that many scientific institutions are finding it difficult to maintain the equipment they have, much less buy new instruments. At Kitt Peak in Arizona, the structure of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories’ solar telescope was beginning to corrode because astronomers, strapped for funds, had put off painting it. This year they could wait no longer, and instead of buying a new, badly needed $100,000 infrared detector, they put the available money into a paint job. The choice, while necessary, depresses Sidney Wolff, director of NOAO. Although the infrared detector was developed in the U.S., she says, “European observatories can afford to purchase it, while we cannot. This is really a revolution in technology; if you’re using five-year-old technology, you’re out of the game.”

The budget constraints are part of an even deeper problem afflicting American research: Congress is reflecting an erosion of public confidence in a scientific establishment that not many years ago could seemingly do no wrong. The message from Washington is clear: science will receive no more blank checks and will be held increasingly accountable for both its performance and its behavior.

Today, despite continuing brilliant work by U.S. scientists, attention seems focused on their failings and excesses, both real and perceived. Why, critics ask, after a decade of effort, have researchers not found a cure for AIDS, or why can’t they figure out, after nearly a half-century, how to store nuclear wastes safely or build spacecraft that work? Why do they concoct compounds that end up as toxic waste or court danger by tinkering with genes?

Some of this burgeoning antiscience sentiment springs from the well-meaning but naive “back to nature” wing of the environmental movement, some from skillful manipulation by demagogues and modern-day Luddites. And some is misdirected; science is often blamed for the misdeeds of industry and government.

But scientists too must shoulder their share of the blame. Cases of outright fraud and waste, sloppy research, dubious claims and public bickering have made science an easy target for its critics. Says Marcel LaFollette, a professor of international science policy at George Washington University: “One of the threads that run through all this is a refusal by the science community to acknowledge that there is a problem. They continue with the attitude that scientists are part of the elite and they deserve special political treatment and handling.”

In Washington the new sock-it-to-science stance is personified by Congressman Dingell, who has taken the lead in investigating the wrongdoings of researchers. Many scientists consider his intrusion into their domain dangerous because it threatens their long-held notion that science should be self-governed, self-regulated and self-policed. When Dingell asked the Secret Service to examine the notebooks in the Baltimore case for authenticity, some researchers accused him of launching a witch hunt and trying to establish “science police.” Because of his badgering of scientists at congressional hearings, he has been charged with practicing McCarthyism. Says Maxine Singer, a molecular biologist and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington: “With Dingell, the issues get swallowed as he makes personal attacks on people.”

Despite Dingell’s abrasive manner, however, he has rooted out some serious abuses in science. The Congressman makes a legitimate argument that science is a social tool and should be directed and regulated in the same manner as other social tools, such as defense and education. A newly contrite Baltimore now says Dingell’s investigation was “an altogether proper exercise of his mandate to oversee the expenditure of federal funds.”

This month Dingell was at it again. He hauled NIH director Healy before his subcommittee to charge that by abruptly transferring a chief investigator of the NIH’s internal office of scientific integrity, she had “derailed” investigations and “demoralized and emasculated” that office, which had been involved in the Baltimore case. Healy indignantly called the charges “preposterous,” adding that Dingell “is a prosecutor. He’s there to root out evil, whether it’s there or not.”

Underlying the current furor over funding, and fueling Dingell’s investigations, are the implicit assumptions that science can no longer be fully trusted to manage its affairs and that society should have a larger voice in its workings. “We can’t just say Give us the money and don’t bother us anymore,” acknowledges Chris Quigg, a physicist at Fermilab.

Congressional pressure on science has been countered by a growing pressure on Congress — by institutions and researchers lobbying for science funds. Influencing the lawmakers has become so critical that science is recruiting the professionals of persuasion. Many universities pay $20,000 a month each for the services of Cassidy & Associates, a science-lobbying firm that has been successful in getting federal money earmarked for its clients. Some of Cassidy’s trophies: $15 million for Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Center and $19.8 million for the Proton Beam Demonstration Center at California’s Loma Linda University. Four biochemistry societies have joined to pay former Maine Congressman Peter Kyros $100,000 a year to lobby for increased funding for biomedical research. Unfortunately, money appropriated for these projects bypasses the peer-review process used by such scientific bodies as the NSF and the NIH.

Too often, science lobbyists find easy pickings on Capitol Hill, where Congressmen, courting votes, can win generous sums for research projects in their home districts by simply slipping riders onto appropriation bills. Federal legislators in fiscal 1991 approved at least $270 million for pork- barrel science projects. In many cases, this kind of financing supports projects of dubious value, while more worthy endeavors go begging. An example: a rider, attached by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, provided $9 million for a facility in his state to study how to tap the energy of the aurora borealis. That project, now funded, is characterized by one University of Maryland physicist as “wacky.”

The NAS’s Press is worried that too many scientists and research institutions are rushing to engage lobbyists. “They see that’s the way the country runs, through lobbying and pressure,” he says. “It’s possible that public confidence in scientists will be diminished.” That may have already happened. In the view of some members of Congress, scientists have become simply another special-interest group pleading for its selfish ends.

For all the lobbying, the scientific community has reached no consensus about the worthiness of various projects. Molecular biologists and particle physicists find it impossible to agree on the relative merits of the Human Genome Project and the superconducting supercollider. “Scientists are scared to death about having to make such choices,” says Francis Collins, the University of Michigan geneticist who led the teams responsible for identifying the cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis genes. “It’s such a contentious area that I’m afraid people won’t be able to agree.”

What is the alternative? Researchers blanch at the thought of a scientifically illiterate public allotting the available funds through the political process. Yet if the science community cannot establish its own priorities, it is inviting Congress and the White House to make all the choices, for better or worse.

While striving for a consensus, scientists would do well to put their house back in order. They should avoid cutting corners or misusing funds in a desperate effort to make financial ends meet. They must come down hard on transgressors, give whistle blowers a fair hearing and not stonewall in defense of erring colleagues. And they should discourage the ill-conceived practice of hastily calling press conferences to announce dubious results that have not been verified by peer review.

Equally important, scientists should redouble efforts to help educate Congress, the press and the public about the importance and benefits of some of their more esoteric work. An example: in little publicized reports in science journals last month, three teams of researchers revealed that they had used genetic engineering to create, for the first time, mice whose brains develop the same kind of deposits as those found in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. Using these mice as models, the scientists should now be able to learn more about the debilitating disease that afflicts 4 million Americans and to develop drugs to alleviate the disorder.

In short, the use of genetic engineering and test animals, practices decried by the more fanatic critics of science, has provided a means by which Alzheimer’s disease could be controlled or even cured. More aggressive promotion of this kind of news would certainly enhance the image of researchers, help restore waning public trust in science and lessen the clout of antiscience activists.

While scientists remain divided about the solution to their dilemma, they do agree, almost universally, on the need for ample support for basic research — research that is not launched with a well-defined end product in mind. Such work has not only been the foundation for America’s brilliant scientific achievements but has also paid handsome financial dividends. For example, basic studies of bacterial resistance to viruses led to the discovery of restriction enzymes, the biological scissors that can snip DNA segments at precisely defined locations. That discovery in turn made possible recombinant- DNA technology, which spawned the multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry. And the laser, now the vital component of devices ranging from printers to compact disc players to surgical instruments, was a serendipitous by-product of research on molecular structure.

Nearly a half-century ago, Vannevar Bush’s clarion call launched America into its Golden Age of science and helped transform society. His words still ring true today, despite the social and economic woes besetting the U.S. In fact, a vigorous science program, properly exploited by government and industry, might generate the wealth needed to solve these problems. To create that wealth, the U.S. must increase its investment in science, both by allocating more dollars and making certain that the dollars already appropriated are spent more wisely. “We cannot stop investing in our future for all the problems today,” warns Frank Press, “or we will be mortgaging our future.”

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