Taking Science and Progress for Granted

February 26, 1996
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzSometimes you have to go away from your home to appreciate it. While in Lima, Peru for a research project on El Niño, I got to thinking about doing research in another country.

Everyone seems to think that a scientist is a scientist wherever he or she may be. But if one travels frequently around the globe, it does not take long to see that this is not so. Visits to developing countries and talks with scientists who live in the Third World paint a much more realistic picture.

In the USA we have all kinds of things that we, as scientists, take for granted: a telephone system that works, an industrial sector that invests in research in no small way, access to the latest scientific journals, and a government that has placed value on its scientific research community. And then there are such "luxury" items as computers, laptops, fax machines (that work), photocopiers, and copier paper in adequate supply.

The picture in developing countries is much less favorable. For starters, some governments do not put much value in their scientific community. Those that do, want that community to focus on short-term problems confronting society, specific problems that national political leaders may deem important.

I have been in Third World countries where manual typewriters are still a luxury, batteries are unavailable, finding a copier almost impossible, and carbon paper non-existent. Electricity blackouts occur with regularity, and phone lines malfunction when it rains.

More importantly, the salaries of the scientists are extremely low — so low, in fact that, despite their love for their work and profession, they are forced to find other ways to make enough money to feed their families. For example, one ecologist in Vietnam sought to work on an international project in an African country for two years as a manual laborer in order to send his meager wages back to his family in Hanoi. Another resorted to selling single cigarettes on a street corner in the hope of supplementing his $10-a-month university salary. Yet another scientist in Turkmenistan (making $6 a month!) lived in a third-floor apartment with no running water. Several times a day, he has to fetch water in buckets for cooking, bathing, and flushing.

Meanwhile, as we approach the end of this decade, scientists in the USA are worried about the reduction in or loss of financial and moral support for their research. With the end of the Cold War and budgetary problems in many countries (especially the rich, industrialized ones), the roles of science and scientists have become clouded.

In past decades our society has praised and honored its scientific research establishment. Today, that status is being re-evaluated. It seems that science as we have known it is undergoing profound change. Scientists, like other people, fear change.

American scientists have been lucky. Many will continue to be lucky, receiving continued support to study topics in which they are deeply interested. Others, however, will be forced to get involved in problems in which they have no interest or will have to leave the profession. Students who once considered science as a field will likely be discouraged from pursuing that career.

It is easy to see the costs to societies that have failed to provide adequate support for their scientific establishments. We must take a long, hard look at the risks that American society is generating as it reduces its support for scientific reserach — basic, applied, and even curiosity-driven.

The relatively few dollars saved today as a result of downsizing the scientific establishment will likely take its toll in American leadership in the global scientific community. Many countries in the past have looked to America for leadership and funding of scientific endeavors. That position is rapidly being eroded as we close out this millennium.

The cumulative costs of that erosion, while painful today, will likely be much greater in the next few decades and will be borne by future generations. I can only wonder if our society, and especially our Congress, is fully aware of the risks to future economic progress with the erosion of support for American science.

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