Role of Administration in Stimulating Basic Research

 William 0. Baker

 September 4-5, 1957


Technical administration first of all must want basic research. Usually it doesn’t, at least in industry, because it is so awkward to handle once you have it. The reasons it is seem genuine and themselves basic, as well, of course, as being well known to you all. But it does seem time that they were brought out plainly, away from the gestures of coy dalliance, with which the pursuit of basic science is customarily and rather dutifully hailed at these and similar conferences.

I should just like to propose two central reasons why basic research often seems too hot for technical or other administration (away from a university) to handle. This should no how imply that there isn't a know-how, though. Please don't think of these reasons as any excuse for administration not stimulating basic research, or taking a “Don't just do something - stand there" refuge. We are all too fond of the "power of positive thinking" for that (often known as go ahead and do something anyway!"). So I strongly believe that much can be done about these two reason for widespread rejection of basic research.

They are (1) its timing is off from moat of the rest of commerce, government and worldly affairs, and (2) its uncommon nonsense content startles and alarms the administrator, who sees, above all and quite properly, the immense values of common sense in running things.

About the timing, the solar and lunar cycles really have it – dally, monthly and by the year. The yearly one is the villain. Since the Stone Age, at least, man has decided to have an “annual accounting,” doubtless long involving number of scalps, ladies or tiger teeth the year yielded. Quite recently, indeed for just a few moments in the millennia of time, he has made this a balance sheet, budget, or annual report. Now, this is well known to us, to the Securities and Exchange Commission, to Senator Kefauver, and even to scientists. But there is really no evidence that the mechanism of the human mind has heard that it must create and rear completely new things between annual budget dates. The human mentality just doesn’t have that wavelength.

At last electronics can rescue us, by telling why administration and basic research so often fail to interact or harmonize with each other. By the giant computer identified by Mr. James Reston here in Washington as the UNIQUACK, we find that business and government have an expectation of results frequency of 3 x 10-6, corresponding to an electromagnetic or light wavelength of 1016 cm., or a sound (or fury?) wavelength (at sea level, of course) of about 1010 cm. Now, the mind, trying to think, and absorb and create something new is certainly, as judged from experience, going at about 1/5 or 1/10 this frequency, with correspondingly longer wavelength. Basic research just can’t mesh in its values with the annual profit reports, although it perfectly well can be counted in the longer term, which is probably 5 or 10 years for real evaluation. So the technical administrator must work on a timing that his top management and shareholders and public will understand, but that will really allow the basic researcher to carry through something basic. Nature commands him – with a human information input of something like 40 bits/sec., to synchronize with Sales, with demands of at least 2 bits per millimicrosecond!

About the nonsense, supposedly the alternative to common sense, the technical administrator must develop a new set of feelings. He certainly will already have, as you do here, an enlightened and informed sympathy for things that look queer. The point of view is often decisive, as in the case of the definition of quadruplets as: 4 crying out loud. But the demonstrated “soundness” and common sense quite necessary for the good administrator should never be used as a screen or a micro-filter for preventing or discouraging daring hypothesis and brilliant intuition which are the dynamics of research and invention. Professor J. R. Oppenheimer has cautioned eloquently concerning the declining worth of “common sense” alone in this era of science:

“There are radical ways of thinking unfamiliar to common sense, connected with it by decades or centuries of   increasingly specialized and unfamiliar experience. There are lessons how limited, for all its variety, the common experience of man has been with regard to natural phenomenon, and hints and analogies as to how limited may be his experience with man.”

On the other hand, the technical administrator must know what is authentic, and discourage indeed a mumbo-jumbo of empty theory – as in this recent summary of a theoretical House-of-Magic that Jack built by Frederick Winsor, The Atlantic, December 1956:

“This is the Button to start the Machine

To make with the Cybernetics and Stuff

To cover Chaotic Confusion and Bluff

That hung on the Turn of a Plausible Phrase

And thickened the Erudite Verbal Haze

Cloaking Constant K

That saved the Summary

Based on the Mummery

Hiding the Flaw

That lay in the Theory Jack built.”

 So the technical administrator must, however painful it is, know something himself. Naturally, it is preferable that he knows everything, a condition that research managers frequently approach through the past tense! But anyway, to take some cases out of a recent past, the administrator must not let it be known that any fool can tell that + and – charges of electricity won’t stay apart right in the same crystal. Certainly they won’t stay apart for such long time as that electric waves can interact with the, and thus a revolutionary facility called the transistor be discovered. And he must not let scientists and engineers realize that seeing what the miraculous plastic polyethylene will do, is really believing what it will do. For instance, all could see a few years ago, that commercial polyethylene would cold draw under stress, and then break only after several hundred percent elongation. But if it was biaxially stressed, especially with some liquids around, it cracked like glass. So the whole polyethylene industry, much against its common sense, revised its syntheses and molecular weights.

So over and over we encounter the persistent experience that the administrator must divide his course between common sense and uncommon nonsense, broaden his feeling for timing, and enlarge his general appreciation of what he is up against if somebody, by chance having sufficiently tampered with the budget, did decide to do a little basic research.