• U.S.

Science: R & D on the Skids

4 minute read

U.S. science is the best in the world.

For years following World War II, U.S. scientists and Government officials could—and often did—make this statement without fear of challenge. Now, however, those who do are likely to meet with a demurrer, even from within the scientific community. No one believes the U.S. has lost its overall advantage in science and technology. But scientists attending a two-day symposium sponsored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Washington last week agreed that the U.S. lead has diminished drastically in the past decade and could erode entirely if the nation does not take some serious—and speedy—steps to stay ahead. Said M.I.T. President Jerome B. Wiesner: “If we don’t apply our enormous, unused capacity to technology, we face a problem of whether we shall survive 30 years from now.”

The debate over U.S. science has taken on a new intensity this year. In its annual report to the President last February the National Science Foundation included evidence that the nation’s scientific performance was slipping. The report showed, for example, that the U.S., which produced 82% of all major innovations—including nuclear reactors, oral contraceptives, integrated circuits, and remote sensing systems—during the late ’50s, accounted for only 55% during the mid-’60s.

Visions of Doom. The report notes an increase in foreign innovation. A decade ago, foreign inventions accounted for only 18% of the patents issued by the U.S. patent office; by 1973 they accounted for 30%. The NSF report also claims U.S. scientific literature has declined in both quality and quantity. The

Soviets, West Germans, French and Japanese now spend a greater portion of their G.N.P.s on research than does the U.S. Indeed, the U.S. investment in research actually decreased during the early 1970s, primarily at the expense of “pure” science, which was considered less productive than applied science.

Some skeptics reject the NSF suggestion that American science is on the skids. “The U.S. is still the most productive nation in the world,” said Nobel-prize winning Economist Paul A. Samuelson at last week’s symposium. A few suspect that the alarm over U.S. scientific performance may be a ploy to win more money for research. Daniel S. Greenberg, editor and publisher of a Washington-based newsletter called Science and Government Report, wrote during a similar scare two years ago that “the elders of science are possessed by visions of doom” that can only be exorcised by more money. He finds nothing in the NSF report to change his view.

But many scientists confess concern over the future of U.S. science and admit there is some substance to the NSF report. In the years since World War II, many American firms have taken advantage of lower European and Japanese wages to do much of their research and development, not to mention manufacturing, abroad. As a result, said the M.I.T. scientists, other countries are ahead of the U.S. in certain areas, such as the development of supersonic passenger jets and the discovery and introduction of new drugs. European and Japanese efforts to catch and surpass the U.S. will probably increase. Said M.I.T. Economist Michael J. Piore: “I sense that we’re going to be on the technological defensive.”

To regain the initiative, Political Science Professor Ted Greenwood believes the U.S. must commit itself as a country to solving its most pressing technological problems. In the past, he notes, Government and science worked together to close the missile gap and place a man on the moon. Now, he believes, the two should adopt a similar attitude toward ending the energy crisis, which he and others consider the most urgent problem facing the nation. It is too early to tell if Greenwood’s advice on energy will be heeded, but there is at least one indication that the country intends to pick up its pace where science is concerned. The Ford Administration recently increased the U.S. research and development budget by 11%, which means the country will invest $24.7 billion in science in 1977.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com