Post Your Opinion
Nice Tries, Happy Accidents, & Stretched Dollars
by Ates Tanin

This handsomely produced book contains the set of lectures delivered by ten Nobel laureates in November 1994 for the inauguration of the John C. Polanyi chair at the University of Toronto. They have been edited with an introduction by Martin Moskovitz, the chair there of the chemistry department, which launched this unprecedented event.
When I arrived in Canada two decades ago, there was a lot of debate about the inadequacies of public-that is, government-support of science. I recall a seminar at the time by Moskovitz on issues that are also at the heart of the present set of lectures, and especially the discussion afterwards. Having recently been intrigued by Jacques Barzun's polemical attack on scientific research in Science: The Glorious Entertainment, where he argued that much of the money granted to scientists gets wasted, I raised a question about the value of the "nice try". Right then and there Polanyi discredited such views, by bringing up (much as in his own lecture in this collection) an anecdote in which Stalin, reviewing the budget of a prominent film director, slashed it to fund only as many movies as the number of good ones he'd made the year before.
Let me leave aside the political debates on who should be paying for what. There is no doubt that dealing with the accelerating tempo of the diminishing of public money for scholarship and research will be for some time on the agenda of all intellectuals concerned with these issues. Many Canadian and American scientists seem resigned to a less "pure" state of affairs, where specifically targeted corporate funding or individual donations will dictate a larger and larger share of their research-if not altogether dominate it. Several of them also sound confident that they can openly go on doing whatever genuinely interests them, along with what they are paid to produce. They see the striking of "deals"-between what is wanted of them and what they themselves want-as a realistic alternative that should be aimed at.
These lectures vigorously expound and defend freedom of choice, within the constraints of peer review, and consequently they uphold unfettered ways of conducting research. This is one of the very best collections of its kind; even stories that one has heard before take on new shades of meaning and bolster each other. To avoid spoiling them for the book's future readers, I will just attest that each lecturer, within the field of his accomplishments, has several gripping stories to drive home his points.
Some of the ideas promoted in these public lectures, on the other hand, have been subject to debate for quite some time. Regarding the plea for freedom, it is somewhat of a paradox that scientists, who are neck-deep in the business of trying to make valid predictions and who often justify their activities on that ground, should be seeking to exempt their own future from the criteria to which they subject other phenomena.
There have been several attempts to deal with this apparent incongruity in the past, mainly through a methodological distinction that may or may not exist between discovery and the justification of scientific results; this boils down to the claim that the discovery phase is more like art than science. Another notion that wafts through several of these lectures is the benefit of serendipity, which acquires a double edge as soon as one reflects on the reliability of unintended consequences for generating welcome and unwelcome news.
Though it was not explicitly raised in these lectures, I also found myself thinking of the underlying and seemingly irresolvable tension between versions of political liberalism or pluralism, which has been increasingly endorsed by most scientists of influence, and the universalism of scientific rationality, which is after all a built-in feature and distinguishing hallmark of science. In other words, there is no such thing as Japanese, Canadian, Tibetan, Turkish, or American science. Science is science.
In 1959, C. P. Snow proclaimed that scientists have the future in their bones. Things looks a lot less hopeful these days, especially to those who do basic research: they are either wishing for the next set of bones to come along, stripping their research to the bone, or worrying about getting picked to the bone. In other words, a consensus of assorted reasons that helped funnel more or less adequate funds into scientific research in the fifties and sixties has been in danger of being up-ended in recent years. Those who are not used to leading their lives in terms of profits alone, and are therefore inept manipulators, are under pressure to overcome their scruples in competing for private funding from corporations and industries eager to make deals with them.
Within the concern about the freedom of scientists, at least two other important issues are also dealt with in several of these lectures. One of them is the proper mix of basic and applied research. The other is funding for investigations in areas where it would be absurd to expect corporate collaboration. It is obviously impossible to justify basic research on a short time-scale in terms of immediate and identifiable benefits. Upon reflection, however, we have plenty of evidence from the history of science that several discoveries that eventually led to what we now consider as indispensable were judged to be more or less useless at their birth.
Consider nuclear magnetic resonance, which was first discovered about half a century ago as an experimental feat with little or no application in sight. It has turned into one of the most precise instruments for the identification of complex molecules and for the elucidation of their structures. With further advances in technology, moreover, we now have magnetic imaging, a unique diagnostic device that is coming into routine use, which is based on the very same idea-though the word "nuclear" had to be dropped from its label for obvious reasons.
As for areas such as those that have to do with environmental issues, and that are likely to add nothing to corporate profits (or subtract from them), it is imperative that we maintain, if not increase, the level of research funding through the public purse, with supplements from individual donations. Take, for example, research tending to implicate chlorofluorocarbons in the destruction of the ozone layer. Needless to say, corporations dealing in those chemicals will not pay for this.
Couldn't we then simply decide what types of research should be funded through the public purse? Wouldn't that dissolve this whole thorny issue for good (apart from fretting about the size of the pie to be cut up, and about who deserves how big a slice)?
Yes, in principle. For that matter, this is pretty much how it has been in the past. But it wasn't just a question of fiscal management when the Canadian minister of finance introduced a proposed new budget with the prerequisite that "in the future, science and technology efforts will be concentrated more strategically on activities that foster innovation, rapid commercialization, and value-added production.to stretch government's science dollars further and more effectively." Let me also point out that the current set of beliefs motivating national policy-makers in Canada and the United States are mainly based on the nostrum that it is time to level off research spending to no more than three per cent of Gross National Product, which some prominent economists have agreed on as the optimum rate of investment in research and development-after several decades of unprecedented increases.

Has science been good for society? I know of no other book in which such a wealth of knowledge, sobering thoughts, and creative speculation has been brought to bear on that question-what's more, in a jargon-free style. One would expect as much from the gathering of so much talent and experience. Readers with a rudimentary knowledge of science will probably benefit from it as much as I have.
The exemplary introduction by Moskovitz sets the agenda, in a style like the lecturers', with a good dose of marvellous anecdotes. The lectures themselves are grouped in three parts. "A Laboratory of One's Own" contains the addresses by John Polanyi (chemistry '86), Dudley Herschbach (also chemistry '86), and Charles Townes (physics '64). Max Perutz (chemistry '62), James Watson (physiology-medicine '62), Michael Smith (chemistry '93), and Christian de Duve (medicine-physiology '74) are grouped together in "Life: The Cosmic Imperative". Henry Kendall (physics '90), Ilya Prigogine (chemistry '77), and George Porter (chemistry '67) round up the series with their concerns and speculations in "The Next Half-Century".
Soon after I had enjoyed these poignant lessons drawn from personal and historical anecdotes on the give-and-take between science and society, I happened to come across in a book review this remark (from a letter to Fritz Wittels) by Sigmund Freud on the main barrier to happier relations between science and society in North America:
"These primitives have little interest in science not directly convertible into practice. The worst of the American way is their so-called broad-mindedness."
Without fully subscribing to this unsparing judgement, we may perhaps admit it has a ring of truth about it. The general public often judges science on the basis of spectacular or yearned-for results. For example, people believe that polio was defeated forty years ago for a pittance, but that tens of billions of dollar spent on cancer research have left us still stuck with the choice to "cut, burn, or poison."
One of the most efficacious of these poisons, namely cis-platin, which has saved myriads of lives, was hit upon accidentally. Some researchers, who were passing electricity through a solution containing bacteria to see if it would effect their growth rate, were startled that the bacteria had stopped reproducing altogether, and looked into the reasons why. This work of course was not initially about cancer at all. If the public heard about this-without at the same getting an adequate account of cancer research-they might well not feel inclined to cheer for the spending of more of those tens of billions: on work that is not just accidentally concerned with cancer.
We must, therefore, make the effort to reach the public ear in such a way as to prevent or overcome unhelpful impressions about scientific research. This book should be extolled as a model for that purpose.
For many readers, the two most important insights from these lectures will be that hardly anything of lasting value ever comes about without a consistently high level of idealism; and that elements such as curiosity, perseverance, false leads, blind alleys, and so forth are part and parcel of doing scientific research.
Several of these themes were captured by Northrop Frye when he pointed out that the patron saint of science is Sherlock Holmes. These lectures go a long way towards unpacking that aphorism.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us