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The Coming Dark Age of U.S. Research : Science: A century of exponential growth in funding ended 25 years ago. Now we face a permanent era of constraint.

<i> David Goodstein is vice provost at Caltech. </i>

Vice President Al Gore issued a report recently called “Science in the National Interest.” It promises to make spending on science and technology “a top priority” in future budgets. This is a great time to be a scientist, right?

Wrong. These are not happy days for American science. Newspaper headlines scream of fraud in the laboratory. Congress, when it killed the superconducting super collider, learned it can slay scientific dragons and is out prowling for more, driven by almost $5 trillion in national debt. With the Cold War over, the great national laboratories have lost their missions and haven’t found new ones. Young scientists with Ph.D.'s can’t find the kind of work they were trained to do.

On the surface, it looks grim. But deep down, the truth is much worse. In spite of the vice president’s best intentions, the good times for science will never return.

In science, good times meant times of exponential growth. Each professor would churn out about 15 Ph.D. students in a career, each of those wanting to be a professor and churn out 15 more Ph.D.'s. That’s how exponential growth works: The bigger it is, the faster it grows. It couldn’t go on forever.

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It ended about 25 years ago. The last 20 years of growth--from 1950-1970--were truly breathtaking. The prestige of helping to win World War II--the Good War--got the money flowing from Washington. The GI Bill of Rights sent college enrollments zooming. National and industrial laboratories boomed. This was the Golden Age of American science. Yet, looking back, we can now see that it was merely a smooth continuation of the exponential growth that started just after the Civil War.

Somewhere around 1970, funds for research suddenly became less plentiful. The best American students started to prove their abilities by reading the handwriting on the wall, and choosing other lines of work. Almost unnoticed, they were replaced by foreign students.

The Golden Age produced genuine excellence in American science, and it became necessary for young scientists all over the world to come to America to study, just as young American scientists had once been drawn to Europe, and, it is said, young Romans to Greece. Those foreign students, together with the growth of postdoctoral holding-tank appointments for young Ph.D.'s allowed us to go on pretending that nothing had changed in American research universities--until almost the present. Now we can blame our problems on the end of the Cold War, or the national debt, or for that matter, El Nino. But the real reason is that nothing can go on growing exponentially forever.

The leaders of American science today are from a generation that came of age during the Golden Age. We think of those as normal times and wait wistfully for them to return; or, if we are of a more activist turn of mind, we demand that the public support us in the style to which we have become accustomed. We stand now on the threshold of our new and future condition: the permanent era of constraint.

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American science has much to be proud of. We are a beacon unto the nations of the world. Our accomplishments are staggering. We may even have a bright future ahead of us. But the future will not be--cannot be--like the past. Those of us who were brought up to believe that winning research grants and turning out Ph.D. students were the noblest of all possible virtues will have to think again, or be replaced.

That’s the real dilemma of American science. It needs to be reorganized from the ground up, but we who are its leaders still refuse to believe that we can’t go on as we have always done before.


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