Science at a Time of National Emergency

The following is a 2002 Interview with Martin Apple, President and CEO, Council of Scientific Society Presidents, by Joy Simpson:

Interviewer: At the Merrill conference Science at a Time of National Emergency you talked about the proposal by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents to form SWAT teams of scientists. Can you tell us more?

Martin Apple: "Scientifically Weighted and Analyzed Tactics" -- that's what we mean by SWAT. Drawing their expertise from many fields of research, teams of scientists could tackle problems in a very different way from the people involved in the Homeland Security Department. Scientists could find key system vulnerabilities and new solutions to problems before they emerge. They could operate without a fixed hierarchy, allowing leaders to emerge as needs arise, with the purpose of developing novel preemptive strategies. Scientists are always on a rapid learning curve.

Interviewer: How did this proposal emerge?

Dr. Apple: Since September 11, we've talked with the presidents of scientific societies across the country and they agree that we should make our expertise available in SWAT teams because we can be uniquely useful.

Interviewer: Do you think the United States government will forge a new relationship with universities during the current national security crisis?

Dr. Apple: It is up to the universities to clarify that the 9-11 crisis is only one of the many problems we face today. Above all, we must continue to do good research -- this is our national strength. Universities must declare the bold challenges for the coming decades. For the short term, national security will be important, but in the long run, the other activities of scientists and educators will prove more significant as we ensure our national strength and security.

Interviewer: What do you see as the research priorities for the future?

Dr. Apple: Here are some long-term goals and appropriate challenges:

  • Discovering new truths of nature and enhancing the value of universities to society.
  • Converting the nation, even the world, into entirely sustainable systems.
  • Developing all the human cognitive capabilities and potentials to learn.
  • Healthier lives, built on preemptive prevention, rather than treatment, of disease.
  • Stimulating our economic engines and inventing new economic systems that prosper without further population growth and environmental damage.
  • Developing affordable, sustainable and universal energy autonomy.
  • Understanding and fully developing affirmative and beneficial human behavior.

Interviewer: How close are we to providing any of these greater goods to society?

Dr. Apple: Sitting right in front of us are many pieces of the puzzle. We just have to clarify them, find the missing pieces, and put them together. We have a lot of work to do. We can get there from here, but we must have the sustained will to do it.

Interviewer: What do you mean when you say that science can provide ways to convert the world into sustainable systems?

Dr. Apple: Our commercial processes must enhance, rather than harm, our natural environment. Another one of our CSSP members, Gene Likens, received the National Medal of Science in May of 2002. He is an ecologist and director of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. His work at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire raised awareness about the effect on watersheds of fossil fuel combustion products. This led to national legislation on acid rain. If a scientist had not studied and understood the complexities of ecosystems, the streams and lakes in the Northeast United States might have become sterile.

Interviewer: If science can make this kind of contribution, why isn't research a priority in federal funding?

Dr. Apple: Science can make thousands of important contributions.  The organization Research!America regularly conducts a public poll to evaluate support for scientific research, especially in health. The 2001 survey shows that four out of five people believe the federal government should support basic science research. But a huge and increasing portion of the federal budget is already committed to entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, and requirements like Defense and debt interest. This makes the competition fierce for the remaining one-sixth of the discretionary budget. CSSP believes it is important to include scientists in the discussion of federal resources. Several ad hoc associations have also formed to educate our national leaders about the myriad of science-based issues, such as The Science Coalition.

Interviewer: Federal funding of graduate student positions in math and science dropped 20 percent or more during the 1990's -- this was a startling fact from your keynote address at the Merrill conference. What happens to our research base if this trend continues?

Dr. Apple: For years we have funded fewer and fewer graduate positions while our needs keep growing. This impairs the function of universities -- creating and passing along new knowledge. Society benefits from graduate students who follow a life of problem solving and discovery. They use these skills not just in research, but in all areas of the workforce. When federal research funding drops, we damage the leadership of the U.S. in all the areas that benefit from science.

In the 1990's we cut back on engineering, physics, math, and computer science. This has a long-term effect. The U.S. Geological Survey and others are still cutting back. During this same period, we saw major support for health science research. But, we must recognize that other fields of science facilitated this progress. To ensure continuing advances in health, we must create new science and technology across the research spectrum. All advances in science have crucial connections to the progress made in any of the scientific fields.

Interviewer: You talked about Japan beating IBM this year with its new NEC supercomputer. Why does this matter?

Dr. Apple: In America, too often we need a crisis to stimulate action. The new NEC supercomputer represents a serious challenge, like Sputnik. The U.S. maintains its role as world peacekeeper because it holds a competitive edge in defense computer technology. We don't share our computing leadership with countries who are threats to the peace. As other countries take the lead in computing -- especially nations that depend on an export-based economy -- we may find that expertise or technology is made available to anyone who can buy it.

It may take us years to produce a new U.S. computer as fast as the Japanese model, and if we don't succeed at making it efficient, we will still lag behind. We need to be able to solve real-time complex problems. The fact that a country our economic size can't turn out thousands of Ph.D.'s in computer science is shortsighted. We graduate only several hundred a year. And those who complete their Ph.D. don't stay in academia for the purpose of advancing the field.

Interviewer: Is it true that the university environment is changing because of September 11? Aren't there a number of new restrictions on research?

Dr. Apple: Yes, there are more restrictions on the way we do research at our universities. I am concerned that the prosperity of science requires openness.

Interviewer: What kind of restrictions are in place now?

Dr. Apple: Use of pathogens is one example. The 9-11 restrictions on transfer of pathogens means that the people involved in doing research often can't get a hold of pathogens for their studies.

Here's another example. Scientists have been doing studies on water in the U.S. for some time -- documenting where it comes from, where it goes, how it gets cleaned up, polluted, etc. Over the years, scientists built a large database, and this helped us develop more effective water policies. After 9-11, the FBI ordered libraries to destroy much of this information stored on CD ROM disks. Now it will be hard for terrorists to find out about our water, but also scientists, lacking needed information, will not be able to develop good water policy or counter-terror moves to protect us.

Interviewer: When would it make sense to restrict access to research information?

Dr. Apple: Some technology requires restrictions. Most -- nearly all -- scientific research can be wisely left unrestricted. Restrictions should be imposed in rare cases, such as the best way to weaponize a pathogen. We have the wisdom to know the difference. For the most part, security issues are not relevant to basic science research. Restraining the free exchange of ideas and information may backfire and erode the quality of our science. Scientific evidence should be tested through open interaction among scientists. If we put limits on the free exchange of data, methods, materials, or ideas, we compromise our ability to produce the most novel or important outcomes.