21stC is. . .

21stC home page

P U B L I S H E R ' S C O R N E R
Beyond the metaphors of war


ANALYZING CURRENT CONGRESSIONAL budget and appropriations bills, the American Association for the Advancement of Science concludes that federal financial support for non-military scientific research will decline by one-third within seven years. AAAS warns that "the long-term effects of dismantling a coherent scientific enterprise could be very harmful."

"Harmful" seems too soft a word; this would be nothing short of a national tragedy. The productive partnership between the federal government and the research university, which originated largely with Vannevar Bush's Science, the Endless Frontier,(1) is clearly at risk. When public support of science is under financial and political attack, and not only anti-intellectuals but people as serious as Vaclav Havel question the concept and value of objective, factual knowledge, Bush's legacy deserves to outlive the conditions under which it appeared.

Fifty years ago, when American universities were becoming the world's leading incubators of ideas, the nightmare of Nazi Germany was giving way to the Soviet threat. The research enterprise arose in a Cold War environment, and though only a conspiracy theorist would attribute the partnership entirely to military purposes, the conceptual border between scientific inquiry and military objectives could be quite porous. Each year at appropriations time, a battery of military officers described to Congress the menacing possibilities associated with underfunding, while heralding imminent breakthroughs in military technology. The habit of linking appropriations issues with specific, urgent objectives became embedded in our research culture.

Science now suffers from a contemporary American disease: belief in the quick fix. We grow expectations that short-term investments will produce predictable results. When this doesn't happen, we question the initial investment. We create the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Continual focus on the quarterly or annual bottom line, neglecting the existing evidence of longer-term returns, will damage the national system of innovation. The absence of a true long-term strategy, like that of the Bush report, is hurting science and the public trust in science. In some areas, science has confused the public by prematurely "selling" possible causes as facts.(2)

The scientific community is of course responsible for some of the unfortunate dissonance between expectations and reality. It has embraced military metaphors to convey the belief that science can overcome an adversary. (The very concept of a "breakthrough" is a military term for a troop movement through an enemy's defensive system.) The public has been led to believe that the efforts to find cures for disease-physical, mental, and social-can be achieved as victory is won on a battlefield. Thus we introduce a "war on cancer" or a "war on poverty." Behind the metaphors lies the notion that if we organize scientific activity as a war effort, we can look for similar results.

Using the war metaphor is a mistake-not because we don't want to apply the same organized intensity to cures as we do to national defense, but because it misstates how science progresses. The scientific enemy is far less well understood at the outset of the campaign; the process of dissecting the causes of a disease is complex; the mysteries of nature don't succumb as easily to the application of sheer numerical force (men and women and dollars) as do battlefield enemies. Nature yields information in a very different way and not as quickly as an expectant public wants. Without the resulting "victories," the public has a natural tendency to become skeptical about sustaining the effort with the same dedication and resources.

If there is growing skepticism about investments in research, the academic community has failed to do just what it should be most qualified to do: educate others about how discoveries are made and benefits generated. Scientific work is difficult, extraordinarily labor-intensive (truly productive scientists work as hard as any group of people I know), and unpredictable in its results. Discoveries often emerge from serendipitous findings, fruitful "errors," false starts, or negative results. Empirical work interacts with theory; the complexity of the phenomena studied makes definitive results hard to obtain. Scientists experience the exhilaration of discovery, but at least as often also experience the frustration of falsified hypotheses and unfulfilled expectations. Indeed, the exhilarations require the frustrations.

As military imperatives recede after the end of the Cold War, great nations will turn their attention increasingly to more critical parts of their agendas, such as improving the health of their citizens. Great societies will realize, if they do not already, that the globalization of socioeconomic systems make us all vulnerable to new diseases initially identified in far-off places; environmental pollution, species degradation, uncontrolled population growth, and ethnic strife in other parts of the world affect our standards of living at home. It is becoming self-evident that we are part of larger systems and our international position will depend on our ability to lead others toward protecting the whole planet.

To sustain this project with the serious long-term commitment it requires, the scientific community must resist taking on the familiar role that characterized military leaders during the Cold War, wielding the stick of impending defeat should funding be insufficient and promising the carrot of victory should we outspend the enemy. Demilitarizing the language of science and the assumptions this language encodes can help prepare the populace for a realistic approach to frontiers that remain genuinely endless.

  1. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1945. Reprinted with a preface by Daniel J. Kevles. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1990.

  2. Cole, Jonathan R. "Dietary Cholesterol and Heart Disease: The Construction of a Medical 'Fact.'" In Hubert J. O'Gorman, ed. Surveying Social Life: Papers in Honor of Herbert H. Hyman. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987 (Columbia University Center for the Social Sciences preprint no. 107).

JONATHAN R. COLE is Quetelet Professor of Social Science and Provost and Dean of Faculties at Columbia University.

21stC home page features special metanews introduction