The People’s Science

William O. Baker

Acceptance talk to the NSF National Science Board on receiving the Vannevar Bush Award on May 21, 1981 in Washington, DC


The privilege of being present at the Annual Dinner of the National Science Board, marking the 31st Annual Meeting of that Board,, and the bestowal of the sixth Alan T. Waterman Award is heightened by my role as proxy. Indeed, I feel that I am a delegate for our host of collaborators here, as well as in my own Laboratories and so many universities, who are not present. So I should hope to be allowed to function as a proxy for all those members of the community of science and engineering. They are the stars (indeed our Waterman Award winner's hobby is astronomy), so I might represent them as the poet Keats wrote in Lamia,

“Will not one

Of thine harmonious sisters keep in tune

Thy spheres, and as thy silver proxy shine?”

Indeed, I believe the National Science Board's initiative in establishing the Vannevar Bush Award and their kindness, even charity, in designating it this year, are elegant ways of accenting what Vannevar Bush stood for. Namely, he valued basic science as the work above all of individual genius. He recognized that it was often a solitary and ever a single-minded pursuit. But, yet, he himself was a leader in more gregarious endeavors of applied science, technology and engineering. And my predecessor on this occasion, Dr. Killian, also recognized (and responded superbly to the need for) community action and extensive, organized enterprise in the service of modern science and technology for the people.

So you see to be a proxy for the many is a special honor, for which we are particularly grateful. (I trust that all here recognize that this is the kind of proxy I am claiming to be, and not the other kind of proxy, which is a genus of heteropterous insects, having few species, which are claimed to be both carnivorous and phytophagus. While debugging is one of the accomplished skills of our time, in both computer programs and cotton fields, I hope you will not feel further inclined to apply it to these proxy claims.)

Now, thus having aspired to act at least by proxy for so much of the population of research and development in our nation, it is not surprising that one speaks about the “people's science.” But we mean here, of course, all the people—those 220 million beyond the approximately one million professionals in research and development, in science and engineering, who are the special constituency of the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation. one's good fortune was to learn about linkages of science and engineering with our American people, and indeed with those around the world, by cherished association, some with Dr. Vannevar Bush and much more with Dr. James Killian. They recognized incisively, in Bush's case through the turmoil of war and Killian's through the comparably challenging post-war issues of hostile dictatorial (autocratic) collectivism, communism and missile and space confrontation, that Americans had real and extensive expectations from science and engineering. This is especially when their Federal Government undertook to provide research and development.

The people's expectations of what could be done under those circumstances were not to be found in the ageold traditions of scholarship and study, on which the essence of science and technology have rested and still rest. Rather, these expectations related to only comparatively recent practices. These emerged a little in World War I, and overwhelmingly in World War II and since. By these practices have science and technology provided comprehensive new systems of service—radar rockets, jet aircraft, abundant foods, antibiotics, electronic communications, computers, hydrocarbon conversion and combustion, polymers, plastics, etc. These new systems.have visibly and systematically changed ways of living, of assuring freedom, of prolonging life, of easing pain.

From these extensive national and international systems developments, the people have come to believe that science and engineering are serving by actually producing or causing innovation and progress. But this belief is held only when a major socioeconomic or human system of living is affected. (The role of modern advertising in these beliefs is also complex.) The changes of components in a system impress people little, and components seem hardly recognized as reasons for support or appreciation of discovery and invention. Substitution of transistors for the vacuum tubes in conventional radios and television sets aroused little interest until the whole receiving system was drastically altered by great power reduction, use of light batteries, compact wristwatch size sets and enhanced performance. Elegant catalytic changes in octane number of gasoline for automobile fuels has no significant impact until extensive shifts in design of the engines, change in costs and weight, as well as acceleration and durability, convince the buyer that the autocar transport system has been significantly improved. This the Japanese and German industries have skillfully recognized.

We can trace this principle throughout modern technological life. So the essence of our report this evening is that this shift to systems engineering and system production is the principal criterion by which people judge modern science and engineering. This happens whether in space and moon landing, rockets and satellite systems, or in the conquest of cancer, where for instance the exquisite specificity of immune reactions becomes notable only after incorporation in structured therapy.

Thus, we celebrate here the inspired foresight of Vannevar Bush in recognizing that there would not be a systems development or significant product for the people unless fundamental science and research were also vigorously pursued. That was the mission and the calling of the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board. But he knew equally clearly that such knowledge had to be organized and developed and applied, engineered and even sold. This required subtle combinations of talented groups of enterprises of industries, of commerce, of government before it would really become a successful part of the people's science. And those factors, in turn, as we said, were well-known to Dr. Killian and were taught to us from his knowledge of how the people expected science to serve. This was interpreted so wisely by President Eisenhower, when threat to the nation of blackmail by intercontinental ballistic missiles was an issue. Accordingly, what was found, and was shared with us neophytes attempting to help, was that the qualities of individualistic science and technical creativity had to be joined with organization. The curious and diverse personalities of experts have to be forged into common and concentrated systems development and final design. This activity lies between what government does best, with its vast and formalized bureaucratic structure that deals in huge generalities, global aims, and necessarily rigid methods, and the other extreme - of basic science and research. For the latter are committed to the genius of individual ideas and curiosities, a culture also not widely familiar even to industry. Usually there the objectives are more limited, although the necessity for joint action of engineers and technologists and scientists is of course compelling. Products like automobiles and pharmaceuticals, and new textiles do demand the cooperation of many technical disciplines and cultural attitudes. Nevertheless, as far as public science and technology are concerned, this mission of the “go-between ways” of getting development done, was little known until World War II and just thereafter.

One familiar example appears in the work of the White House Science office and the functions and actions of the President's Science Advisory Committee. A certain lightness of touch must be preserved in advisory roles at such high levels. Otherwise, science becomes subject to doctrine and arrogance, which ill become it.

PSAC itself got a bit murky at times (in fact, the late George Merck was once considered for membership). Masterminding took unexpected turns, and was constantly impelled by institutional correlations and coordination. I was assigned to produce the first PSAC report for President Eisenhower—it  was about the national role in science and technology information and publication. When reviewed for submission to the President, one member, General Jimmy Doolittle, caught the theme song (tuned up in concert with Senator Hubert Humphrey) “information explosion,” and he thought the study should be referred to the Bomber Wing of the Eighth Air Force. Professor Zacharias then wondered if it (explosive information) could be used as a rocket propellant, for which we were frantically searching in those formative years of the space program. (Members were often informally “zached” by Zacharias, who had deep pedagogical interests (PSAC was one of the best population controls for physicists in the history of demographics)). These interests led him to ask me, “Just what is chemistry?” As soon as I replied, he would hold his nose, complaining that he just got a bad smell.

Later, after Dr. Killian's time, when Professor Kistiakowsky was special assistant, he asked for a discussion of systems research. As it began, he first thought we were speaking of the Penn Central Railroad System, muttering something about being off the track. This train of thoughts switched quickly to the Defense Department, where Kisty regarded Herb York as good for an afternoon in budget-busting any day, especially Sundays. Kisty would have preferred to have the Minute Man system production and deployment assigned to Harvard, since MIT and Stark Draper had already got the Polaris. York, however, was saved by General Bennie Schriever, Air Force Commander, who, in his many PSAIC appearances, felt Harvard was an offbeat, and wouldn't put his silos in the Yard.

And so it went; Jerry Wiesner and I were assigned seats along the wall of the Cabinet Room as President Kennedy's Ex Comm met that fatefull fall of 1962 when Krushchev nearly buried everybody.(I do recall a difference in our seating, though—I was facing out into the room.) As the years went on, the institutions and coordinating pressures of the enterprises in the White House tightened, until in his second time around Lee DuBridge (who had served as Chairman of the earlier form of the Science Advisory Committee, after Buckley) found that not only wasn't science being heard, but nobody was even running to the tapes(!), when he tried to speak for science and technology in the White House. Thus, it remained for Ed David, an expert in audio and acoustical science and engineering, to pursue his skillful avocation of human bionics and electrology, and to begin the wise moves which culminated in the Reorganization of 1973. For he involved the other elements of our national scientific inquiring community having, as you may remember, East Wing conferences with physicists about the national budget (they are probably the only ones who understood the exponentials involved in that financing), conferences with President Nixon about the future of technology, and so on.

But let us digress for a moment into a not wholly fanciful representation of oncoming features of this science advising.

Of course conditions now for the operations of the science and technology office in the White House, and the creation of new national initiatives, are different than before. Creativity, speculation, the genesis of ideas—all such things on which science and technology, innovation and invention so delicately depend—are now and in the times to come subject to new hazards.

Let us speculate for a moment on what could happen in the near future, as the OSTP seeks to cope with compelling issues of today. In a f ashion approved by popular institutions such as those for the Future, those using Delphic systems of prediction, those thinking—“tanks for the nice grant”—let us establish a scenario.

The scene is in an oval room overlooking a sweeping landscape like an ellipse. Therefore, with such geometry we immediately think of the conic sections, looking indeed, because of the strong economic and political interest of the environ, perhaps even for ways that technology could make a conic boom! Accordingly, the discussion of several top scientists and engineers in the oval chamber is about a new possibility of ion implants into carboniferous matter such as coal and certain wood and other plant material. Such elementary implants may have intense and remarkable catalytic effects, induced in the presence of hydrogen and leading to immensely efficient hydrocarbon and alcohol production from these vastly plentiful natural resources. The scientists and engineers wish to report to the person at the desk, who being seated is known also as a Chairperson, on whether a major national initiative should be started—one even larger than the Manhattan Project. This would establish whether energy needs and fuels for all foreseeable future can be provided from abundant materials in this way. Obviously the implications for national security and international stability are intense, since the positions of the OPEC countries, those of conflicting ideology, and of developing nations would all be drastically affected.

The meeting begins with a brief account of how a variety of particle accelerators will be needed to establish comparable conditions for the ion implants. Much care is needed to avoid undue public expectations and also to avoid public concern about whether some new nuclear ventures being attempted, that would have extensive radiation hazards. This care must be fostered. After the first few words of explanation, there comes a voice from the far side of the room asking, was this meeting announced in the Federal Register at this place for this date and time, according to public law for the Sunshine conduct of all Governmental affairs? (Exceptions are just those certain ones on national security personnel discussions and budget matters.)

After many seconds of silence the Chairman of the USTP Panel, who is distinctly not the Chairperson, asks: who are you? The voice responds, I am from the Washington Ghost. I do not believe that this session was properly announced, I shall therefore denounce it as illegal when I submit my story of the actions for tomorrow morning's edition of the Ghost. Goodbye. I must now go of f to write my story, in order that in the highest traditions of investigative reporting we shall meet or possibly beat the deadline.

Those still remaining in the oval room, barely including the Chairperson (who has just pressed all 14 buttons of his Call Director telephone simultaneously, and who could not then leave the room because all exits have become clogged with staff members), return to the discussion. In order to move right along, which is necessary in the efficient administration of all enterprises nowadays, the Chairman notes that the catalytic ions must be implanted in various matter, at various depths, involving various field strengths. At this point, the Chairperson quickly presses the button for the Secretary of Agriculture, and picks up his telephone, requesting a call also to the Weather Bureau on field implanting conditions in the continental United States. These rapid responses are consistent with the new science policy of enlisting the whole resources of the Government and the Nation to meet national energy requirements.

The Chairman hastily interjects that indeed a lively knowledge of nuclear engineering is indispensable to organize for this new initiative. However, he himself is governed much by the traditional concept that to get anything to work requires a task force. The phenomenon was fortunately unknown to Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, or other masters of classical and quantum mechanics. But it has become a sociophysical requirement of recent years. Thus it is agreed that the ion implanting may be farmed out to a qualified task force, which will conduct its first meeting on “Meet the Press” after publication of the final report, in the Federal Register. So much f or a prototype of advising for the future. At least, we are quite sure this process will not occur in the immediate future, but we should be prepared.

This advisory function is however, a necessary element of the people's science, one that we have steadily enhanced especially through Killian's since those times in which Bush was leading much of it. As we have noted, the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board, along with the NIH and certain related agencies, supported by the Congress and often the White House have increasingly and admirably provided other resources for the components—the basic science and research done mostly in our universities. These components, unseen and unheralded by most of the people (except for an occasional sensational press release or science magazine essay) are of course the new knowledge and understanding on which all of these systems developments and outputs have ultimately to be based.

So let us look more sharply at what this people's science requires and how it fits the moods and motions of our nation now, and perhaps in the times ahead. Dr. Frank B. Jewett, first president of Bell Laboratories, said in 1946, when he was also president of the National Academy of Sciences, about Dr. Vannevar Bush, “By all customary standards, it is a farther cry still from the type of mind which can devise a new electronic tube of a complicated radio set to one which can administer and direct creatively a great diversified fundamental science undertaking like the Carnegie Institution. Beyond that, even, is the greater gap which separates the quiet of the laboratory from the turmoil of the Directorship of the Office of Scientific Research and Development of a nation at war, where all that is potential in civilian science and technology has to be forged for a maximum of conflict power in a minimum of time and with a minimum of conflict in the forging, where the job to be done is only partially one of dealing with inanimate things and largely one of dealing with strong and frequently perverse men.” In this tribute to Bush, it seems that Jewett himself recognized the span of action necessary.

Indeed it was his leadership before the war that gave one a feeling in our Laboratories of how to compose scientific and engineering resources for creativity, productivity and utility, to make the people's science come true. Jewett's tribute to Bush also prepared us to expect the vision and sage timing of Bush's report to President Truman, the classic: “Science - The Endless Frontier.” Both Bush and Jewett knew in their respective pursuits, in the fundamental studies at MIT and the Carnegie Institution by Bush, and the science, technology and engineering of telecommunications at Bell Laboratories by Jewett, that new knowledge and invention would be turned into forms acceptable as the “people's science” only after systems development and engineering abilities had been organized and executed. These then had to bring forth an actual change in operations of society, whether as fluoridated toothpaste and water, or an intercontinental ballistic missile system for national security, as nationwide telephone dialing or as Bush's mathematical engine.

So what one has tried to do in these decades of new and vast Twentieth Century science and technology is to learn how best to distribute and to interrelate these complementary talents of our precious community. We have sought new ways of persuading them to work together, and to interact. Thus we find how to use best the dramatic successes of discovery and insight that the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board have sponsored, on behalf of the people, in the modes that Vannevar Bush outlined so accurately.

First, this meant studying, and above all exercising, ways to express and to structure modern science and technology in our own Laboratories. Here we had to face every facet of the transitions and application of discovery, under the tight rein of economic viability and consumer acceptance. We had to generate, in order to extend the basis of new knowledge, organizational groupings heretofore untried in industry, such as in the 1950s a department of theoretical physics, a center of computer science, a laboratory of behavioral research and human factors, and later an Economics Research Center. Among the physical scientists and engineers, the early Materials Science and Engineering Division was thought to be an affront to the identities of the classic Chemical Laboratory, Metallurgical Laboratory and solid state research effort. A division of operations Research and Quality Assurance, where the now sacred commercial resource of quality control was born and reared, combined heretofore unconnected aptitudes. Such endeavors were our primary concern for a quarter century, along with their obstacle courses of assuring suitable personal environs and aims for the brilliant discoverers of a silicon solar cell, charge coupled devices, hard super-conducting magnets, the Boltzman Law-defying optic system that came to be called the laser, satellite communications and the propagation of radio waves in the cosmos, including its Big Bang residual radiation, photonic circuitry, computer operating languages like “C” and systems like the basic theory of why glass transmits light and obstructs electricity, and so on. These provided real life training in the opportunities that Bush and Jewett had recognized so long ago. As we have said, with proper care and commitment, groupings of gifted men and women could be arranged in relation to systems developments and systems plans so that the gap would be closed between major social and economic and national security needs (such as governments and politicians can also conceive) and the beautiful perceptions and productions of the basic scientist and researcher.

Accordingly, other opportunity to participate in new and flexible methods of organization for systems analysis, development and engineering has been provided since the mid century also by the unsurpassed pluralism of the Federal science and technology, as well as operational programs. This pluralism we have jealously guarded and enhanced as one of the best guarantees of a democratic government. It becomes a central theme, as the superstructure of science and technology has pervaded nearly every government operation. This reaches from the computer and data handling roles in welfare and transfer payments to the rocket guidance and command-and-control which now defend Free World democracy.

In this time, we have still made only modest progress toward bridging the competencies we have already noted in basic science and discovery an one side, such as especially pursued to the universities and some large industrial laboratories, and the large operational objectives of Federal systems programs on the other. The conventional solution has, of course, been through contract schemes. Thereby, a host of sizes and shapes of independent ventures, ranging from the huge captive defense industry to the Washington “Belt-Way Bandit” entrepreneurial consulting venture, have done their useful parts in some version of systems development and the allocation of human resources in appropriately ingenious and integrated forms. But entropy and age ever intervene. A most elegant model of how to get these new things done for national security was the structure that Trevor Gardner and I worked out with General Bennie Schriever, called Air Force Systems Command. It has in recent times found itself heavily pushed into disintegration and parceling out of systems developments which really demand integration. In the National Cancer Program, we prepared a thick book called the National Cancer Plan. It was apparently the first systems engineering prospectus attempted in the ancient and esteemed field of biomedicine research and development. Its existence even irritated many of the traditional elements of that humane endeavor. Physicians since Hippocrates and even Pasteur and Fleming have fiercely maintained individuality and specialization. So the most intriguing system of all, as Harvey implied in the circulation of the blood, remains largely the domain (in science and engineering) of the orthopedic/dermatologic knowledge of the big toe, arising through a spectrum of organs to the cranial neurosurgeon! They cover actually from the ambulacral system to the vascular system which mean, incidentally, the same. But a systematologist has no part in the annals of medicine. Nevertheless, we have begun to find the allocation of effort and findings much benefited by even this gross guideline of how the National Cancer Program may be conducted.

These cases are but samples and beginnings of a realm of science and technology in which we seek to modify the doctrine that the whole is limited by the sum of the parts. Thus, we believe that sufficiently detailed knowledge of what has been possible with the parts, and through the vigor and strength of basic science, can be combined with a sense of systems science and technology in new and fruitful forms.

It appears that this filling in of what might be called the “government grandeur gap,” the gap with real scientific discovery on one side and systems development and service to the people on the other, will provide great rewards as well as great challenges also in the years ahead. Its primary characteristic, as we have said, is the recognition of how various discoveries and understandings in seemingly disparate fields of science can combine. Thus, it is to be expected that, for instance, chemical engineering, already an elegant exercise of computer modeling, will link with genetics and other bioscience initiatives to move forward the ever-demanding life support and health-maintaining systems, the most humanistic of all research and development. In the realm of energy, in which the burdens of the body are eased by machines meaning, literally, that positions of society are altered, creative combinations of materials science and engineering, nuclear science, astronomy, geosciences, and biology can, among others, be looked to for new and exciting resources.

And in our own lifework of communication and information science and engineering lies a chance to join the behavioral and neurosciences with the physical sciences and technologies, as we have already found to be most promising and useful in the emergence of information and communication theory. The present augmentations of logic and memory by digital machines and systems, and the compression of space and time by telecommunications networks and terminals is only the beginning of a worldwide advance.

And so as the 20th century ends, there shapes up a philosophy of the “people's science.” It adds to the ancient and well-tried doctrine that discovery and understanding, as Bacon foresaw them, are best assured by disciplinary forms. In these, a culture is certain that mathematicians do mathematics, physicists physics, chemists whatever they are asked, biologists all the rest. The enhancement of that by the doctrine that also, now, with the literature and scope of science, we can achieve combinations of many disciplinary forms, not by weakening or diffusing, but by strengthening and sharpening, conventional science. This is further opportunity for the future.

Like most good chances it has its risks and obstacles. obviously prime among these is assurance that what we have called “components,” namely the disciplinary based, heroic new insights—the laser, the transistor, the Big Bang, the wave nature of matter, as a few familiar examples—have to be authentic. The risk is that they will become spongy, or wrong.

A recent essay in the journal Science asks whether fraud is an intrinsic feature of our science culture. Polywater, Lysenko genetics, what next? Now here is where we have in our Federal system of the USA a big help. It is called the National Science Board. it was conceived in Vannevar Bush's report to the President and defined especially in the section accounting for the National Science Foundation. He said about the Board, “Responsibility to the people, through the President and the Congress, should be placed in the hands off, say, nine members, who should be persons not otherwise connected with the government and not representative of any interest, who should be known as the National Research Foundation members, selected by the President on the basis of their interest in and capacity to promote the purposes of the Foundation.”

While the details of the formation and composition of the National Science Board have evolved over the years, the high destiny conceived at the beginning has been realized by that Board and by its relationships to the National Science Foundation. Together, they have constituted a remarkable and unsurpassed ethic and conscience for the quality of science—the intellectual components of the total systems to which we assign the expression “the people's science.” The charter which Vannevar Bush discussed concerning the members of the Foundation and of the divisions which would be its operating elements wisely and thoroughly recognized the extraordinary influence that such a body could have on the culture of science and technology of our nation and the world. It is our privilege this evening to assert that this combination of the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation has already changed the course of history, by qualifying the fundamental research and teaching of our universities and other educational systems as well, and indirectly that of federal agencies and industrial elements. It has stood for quality, integrity, authenticity, and originality through which the components of knowing nature can comprise a valid people's science.

So here, in these chambers replete with the history of our Republic, in the presence of so many within our Government and among our citizens who also serve, we salute the people's science. Resolving never to be satisfied with what has been done, we see new pathways to what can be done, particularly by combining the once unknown and unthought in new ways and to new ends.