April 15, 1991
Since current events involving the Rockefeller University reflect relatively broadly based trends and philosophies of modem science and scholarship, some particular actions regarding the Trustees and the University community might be usefully discussed. Over all, the prominence of the modem media, and the much older culture of science and research, are basically disparate, and increasingly in conflict. This is especially so because of the fluid and tentative qualities of scientific study, where nothing is final, and all is subject to varying degrees of certainty and tentativeness. These are understood and defined by the scientific world, but are puzzling and unsettling to the public, which generally imagines that scientific and technical “facts” are the one set of absolute truths to which humanity is exposed. Another feature is preoccupation of the media with personalities and individuals, the one component where science and academia have a completely different scaling system than the public and sociomedia forms. Namely, science recognizes intensely that the individual is the significant unit for ideas, for perception, for discovery, for intellectual adventure, but then becomes merely a thread in the total fabric of science and technology where, in the endless search for a truth, the constant striving of the entire nameless population of science is requisite. Then the individual fades, the preeminent discipline of sciences comes in, with its confirmation, replication, confinement of experiment, global and even cosmic pulling and hauling, pushing and shoving and whether this or that integer stands up, or that spectraline reappears, or especially whether this or that gene influences an organic process.
In stark contrast, the media expect, even demand, that the individual embodies the science, stands for and must forever sustain, the particular study or given finding. Each member of this Board will easily think of examples of this absurdity, but nevertheless, it is going on heavily right now, with the world proliferation of public reports of science and technology. More generally, however, it does lead to a dangerous distortion of scale, accentuated by the 20th Century upsurge of governmental and hence public funding of research and development, especially in universities. That distortion is such that even within the scientific world, there is becoming an undue identification of personalities with the long, slow, difficult, piecemeal evolution of scientific understanding. Current activities make this even worse. For instance, while as we said, the individual and the personality is the action unit for discovery and perception, and thus must be recognized by a carefully structured system of awards, prizes, recognitions that is in the scientific community, the public emphasis on notice of certain of these designations has become so theatrical that even the players are embarrassed. Examples abound, such as in the recent neo-litigation phases of French concerns about priority in physiology and medicine and the award to Bednarz and Mueller in Zurich merely a couple of years after they observed superconductivity in lanthanurn barium copper oxide ceramics at temperatures somewhat above numerous other conventional measurements and so far from technical function of the systems that worldwide assertions of losslets electricity, maglev trains, etc. have conspired greatly to reduce the public confidence in all of science and technology. Other cases occur in the pharmaceutical/medical arena. It seems that these and other basic disparities and conflicts must be understood more widely. Hence, at the RU, deriving a position of the Trustees expressing such understanding could be proper and helpful under continuing and future circumstances. These general issues of responsibility and public understanding are especially reflected in the admirable writings of C. P. Snow, who brought together the views in a national network broadcast from New York on December 27, 1960, in which Lord Snow, Father Ted Hesbergh and I, following an introduction by Warren Weaver, spoke on “The Moral on Neutrality of Science” (published in Science, Vol. 133, p. 255-262, 1961). Ile situation covered, including some remarkable examples cited by Snow, seems to be strikingly contemporary in the broader public and media views of these matters and, accordingly, of the political derivatives, such as those of Congressman Dingell and others. (By the way, you may be amused that there are mary political angles in this era of science and engineering -- for instance, a couple of us nearly got banished to the Gulag when, as a direct descendant of the McCarthy period in Washington, we refused to confine the discovery by Towns and Shallow in our MH Laboratories of the laser, 1958, but insisted in full accord, of course, with the inventors that this be promptly published. In that case again, the government was using a completely different set of scales and criteria than were appropriate. Although we were chastised and threatened, the subsequent role of the laser in human progress makes the political doctrine seem rather unsatisfactory.)
Now, of course, none of this background offers quick, convenient and pragmatic solution to matters we are discussing this morning. But we submit that there will be no satisfactory resolution of such matters without a careful, wise and continuing consideration and application of comprehensive efforts. (Namecalling and letterwriting are not going to do it.) Accordingly, it is suggested the Rockefeller University state their plan to continue learning about and discussing present investigations of American research universities and positions of academic and scientific work, particularly with respect to charging practices and policies in Federal contracts, and broadly, with respect to matters of ethics, policy and authenticity of research studies intrinsic to such contracts.
The present and ongoing political and public attention to these issues, in both the Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal Government raise generalized, as well as some particularized, issues pertinent to the responsibilities of the Trustees of the Rockefeller University. The Board finds at this time that its knowledge of the whole is both requisite and incomplete. Accordingly, it will develop in concert with the faculty and administration of the Rockefeller University an ongoing and evolving base for whatever actions are needed for the long-term and institutionally suitable benefit of the University.
Similarly, the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller University would welcome and support a statement of the Administration of the University asserting that mindful of the national and public, as well as political, tensions of this time, that it will exert particular effort and care as each stage of various critiques develop, to consider and to express actions strongly directed to the welfare position of the entire University and its community, beyond the inevitable and rather regrettable preoccupation of publicity and politicians with individuals and personalities.
W. 0. Baker
April 15, 1991