Richard Lewontin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Politics: Conversation with Richard C. Lewontin, AlexanderAgassiz Research Professor, Harvard University, November 20, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Government and Science

This leads to an interesting question, which is the role of government in science after World War II; you've written about this. It was central to fulfilling the requirements of society. To get around the problem that you were talking about earlier -- namely, to get the kind of people you need to do science, the kind of capital investment you need -- society has to be doing it. Those investments have to be socialized. The private sector either couldn't or wouldn't do it, and one always had the problem that the result would then be privatized. This is a recurring issue, and I want you to help us understand how that process evolved after World War II.

Well, it evolved largely through the efforts of Vannevar Bush, as a matter of fact.

Who had been at Harvard, right?

No, I don't think Vannevar Bush was ever Harvard. He was at that time the head of the Carnegie Institution at Washington. He had been very important in the war effort in science and the war, and a report was written for the President of the United States called "Science: the Endless Frontier," which put in a strong bid for government support of science, of which there had been virtually none before the Second World War. The importance of science for the national interest was underlined by the atomic bomb project, radar, and so on; but private companies were not going to put money into science because they have very short investment horizons and it has to be privatized. So what Vannevar Bush pushed on the administration was the idea that there should be government support of science. On the other hand, the word "socialism" is a dirty word in the United States. So you couldn't "socialize" it. You had, somehow, to find a mechanism by which public money could be put into science, yet not appear to be some kind of a socialistic scheme.

What was developed was, at first, the National Science Foundation, which the first time around didn't get through Congress because Congress said, "What do you mean the National Science Foundation? Am I, as a congressman, going to be able to have an input in what goes on here? Are you going to give away public money to these guys to do what they like?" And it failed. But then under Truman, they finally succeeded. They got the National Science Foundation created. Then the National Institutes of Health began to have a huge input into science. The Atomic Energy Commission, then called the Office of Energy Development or something, and now it's the Department of Energy, they put a lot of money into science. Some of my earliest work was supported by what was then the AEC. It had nothing to do with atomic bombs, except very, very vaguely. The way it worked was that Congress appropriated money for these institutions, but the decision about how the money was spent was left entirely in the hands of academics themselves. The NIH gets a budget, the NFS gets a budget, and then individual professors, scientists, are recruited into Washington onto committees, which meet three or four times a year, to review research proposals. And they say, "Yes, you shall have some. No, you shall not have some."

What has happened is that the scientific community as a whole has gained control over a piece of the public purse, complete control, because it's "we" -- I served on these committees for years -- who decide who gets the money and for what reason. The claim is, of course, that this is good for society in general. No one's ever proved that, and I'm not sure you could demonstrate that it benefited anybody in particular. But it really worked to the benefit of universities. A very large fraction of university budgets depend on this federal input into research. Especially after Sputnik, the budgets expanded exponentially. The current state of the university, including the University of California, Harvard, state universities of all kinds, private universities, the immense expansion in the higher education sphere, the immense expansion of the number of people who are in education, is all a consequence of the money put in by the federal government, and given over, I have to say, to the academics to spend as they wish. It's a very extraordinary phenomenon.

You suggested in one of your pieces that a vehicle for getting around the ideological hang-ups about doing this is the need to fight a war. During the Cold War, it was the war against the Soviet Union.

Absolutely, war is the way you do it. Scientists were given money to work during the Second World War, because there was a war. Then there was the Cold War. Then there was a war on cancer. And then there was the war on drugs. The rhetoric of war, over and over and over again, justifies the expenditure of public monies, which in our ideology is not to be done because that's socialism. So, "war" replaces "socialism."

It looked like there wasn't a war to fight after the end of the Cold War. But now we have the war on terrorism. So the question is ...

Yes, but Harry, "war" became a word that was separated from political wars. As I say, we had the war on cancer, the war on drugs. Those did the trick. You don't have to have the war on terrorism.

But we do have it.

We do have it.

And what I'm curious about is, do you think that the particular threat posed, the use of biological weapons, possibly, by an adversary, do you think that will in any way skew the kinds of research that will be done, or is there so much research going on that that won't happen?

I don't see that it will have any real effect on the research community. Look, Camp Dietrich and other institutions had been doing biological warfare research for years. They then shut it down because of various treaties; they can always start it up again. The amount of money spent on that kind of stuff is pretty small, as compared to the total budget of scientific research. So at the moment, I don't see that it will have any effect, no.

No, the effect such wars have -- political wars, like the war on terrorism -- is to create a security hysteria in which people may have to sign a loyalty oath and that sort of thing. But as far as money is concerned, no, I don't see it.

It has not been your [experience] that you were denied research funds because of your activities. In fact, it never happened.

Never happened, no.

But the McCarthyite atmosphere that did exist in the Cold War period was the work of politicians, people on boards of regents and so on, who used it as an occasion for advantage, or to go after people to succeed politically.

Yes, individuals certainly suffered. There's no question about that -- people lost their jobs. After the professors at the University of California swore loudly they would never sign a loyalty oath, they did. They had no choice. But we don't live in a totalitarian society, and the system is very inefficient in that sense. I, and other people who were deeply involved in what were then regarded as, I suppose, subversive activities, continued to get funded without cessation from the Atomic Energy Commission, from the National Science Foundation, the NIH, from the Office of Naval Research. The activities of McCarthy severely hurt some people, and put a lot of psychological stress on others. But it was very inefficient as a way of denying support to opponents of the state, very inefficient. Now, if we ever get efficient enough to do that, we really will be living in a totalitarian state. So far that hasn't happened.

Do you think that the profiling of students because of their national origins, which seems to be part of the agenda these days, will impact research, if it's implemented?

It's very hard to know. Will they be denied entry into the university? Will you be prohibited from hiring them? I don't know the answer. During the Second World War, Japanese were very severely hurt by that profiling. And curiously enough, German refugees who had left Germany, either because of political or religious persecution, nevertheless were German nationals, were restricted in their movement. My piano teacher, who taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, had to get special permission to come up to New York to teach his students, because he happened to be a German. He was a German Jew who had left Germany. So yes, it does make people's lives difficult. In some cases, it makes real hardship -- people lose their jobs. It's evil stuff. But to ask me whether it has a mass effect, I haven't seen the mass effect yet. I don't know what to tell you.

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