UNIVERSITIES AND SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION
UNIVERSITY RESEARCH AND TEACHING
Universities are basically educational institutions, and this mission remains essential. American universities have also embraced research as a second principal mission since the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the two missions have since become highly interdependent, particularly at the graduate level.
It was not until the post-World War II era that the nurturing of basic research in U.S. universities, as supported by large-scale federal funding, became national policy. This was a deliberate decision that was based on the high productivity of universities—and university people—in support of national security needs during World War II. This experience led to support of basic research in universities by the Office of Naval Research immediately after the war, then to the creation of the National Science Foundation “to develop and encourage the pursuit of a national policy for the promotion of basic research and education in the sciences; [and] to initiate and support basic scientific research in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, engineering, and other sciences…” (emphasis added).1
Today the research university is a major American institution, one that supplies almost all of the scientists and engineers for the academic, governmental, industrial, and military needs of the country and performs much of the fundamental research at the frontier of most important scientific fields. The research university is thus vital to the intellectual, economic, technological, and military health of the nation. There are 50—or perhaps 150, depending on how “major research university” is defined—of these institutions. While they account for less than 10 percent of the total R&D expenditures in the country, they account for more than half of the national effort in basic research, much of which is financed by the federal government. Thus, over the past 35 years the United States has moved deliberately to vest the primary responsibility for discovery of new knowledge—and for disseminating it—in a group of universities whose research activities are largely supported by the federal government. The success of this arrangement need not be argued.
These institutions have created new technologies and indeed whole new fields of technology, as is illustrated by the new field of genetic engineering. They attract some of the ablest minds from all over the world. Their work is done in cosmopolitan groups, and while individual researchers may come and go, the research projects themselves continue in stable institutions that can assemble the best academic talent that exists worldwide in a given field.
Research and teaching have now become inextricably intertwined in the American research university. From the educational point of view, a critical mission of the university is to teach students how to solve difficult problems at the research frontier. Such research problems are difficult, because if they were not, they would already have been solved; they are novel or they would not be at the frontier. This method of education is carried out by apprenticing students to scientists who themselves are solving difficult problems at the research frontier. Undergraduate education is also strengthened when students are taught by scientists involved in discovering new knowledge firsthand.
Looked at from the point of view of research, the universities collect the ablest minds and provide them with an environment that gives them the freedom and resources to pursue their own ideas. An integral part of this environment is the postgraduate system whereby the leading students apprentice themselves to their mentors and provide the fresh outlook and energies characteristic of inquiring young minds. Such graduate programs generally conclude with a doctoral dissertation, independently conducted, which in itself is an original contribution at the research frontier.
Universities make several contributions to military and civilian technologies. Government agencies and private firms fund much university research to help solve technological problems and to get access to the best understanding that underlies such technologies. University researchers also occasionally provide insights by consulting directly with public- and private-sector R&D programs. Over the long term, however, the rate of technological advance in both sectors may be more seriously affected by the flow of new young talent—trained at the leading edge in relevant scientific disciplines—from universities to employment in military and industrial R&D efforts. The American university is the unique place in our society where new generations of leading scientists and engineers can be produced in sufficient numbers and proficiencies; in order to produce them the research function in the university mission must remain strong.
There are now, however, a number of economic, social, and political strains that, at the very least, will lead to significant changes in the way the system operates and, at worst, will lead to serious impairment of its effectiveness. Federal funding at universities, measured in constant dollars, leveled off about 15 years ago, and thus recent growth in the system has been slight, making it more difficult to replace obsolete equipment and to undertake new, and more expensive, enterprises. Demographic changes have led to a declining college-age population, which, with declining interest in science careers among young people, has raised questions about America’s ability to attract
adequate numbers of students to scientific and technical fields. Reduction in federal funds for the support of graduate students has exacerbated the problem. Economic considerations have led to falling numbers of engineering graduate students, leaving the country dependent on foreign nationals for a substantial fraction of its engineering faculty needs. Other problems involving the size and complexity of many research operations are also challenging and weakening the research-education system. Any additional challenges, including limitations on free communication, would compound an already difficult problem, making it yet harder to attract the best people to university research and making it harder for those who are attracted to maintain first-rate research programs.
Free communication among scientists is viewed as an essential factor in scientific advance. Such communication enables critical new findings or new theories to be readily and systematically subjected to the scrutiny of others and thereby verified or debunked. Moreover, because science is a cumulative activity—each scientist builds on the work of others—the free availability of information both provides the foundations for further scientific advance and prevents needlessly redundant work. Such communications also serve to stimulate creativity, both because scientists compete keenly for the respect of their peers by attempting to be first in publishing the answers to difficult problems and because communication can inspire new lines of investigation. Finally, free communication helps to build the necessary willingness to confront any idea, no matter how eccentric, and to assess it on its merits.
Scientific communication occurs in many different ways. Moreover, because no one country has a monopoly on scientific talent in any field, communication among research workers at the frontiers of science is international in character.
The most formal channel of communication is by means of publication of scientific findings in reputable journals. Over 2,000 such journals are widely distributed and universally read and cited by scientists. The international nature of science is reflected in the fact that in recent years only about 37 percent of the articles in these journals have been by U.S. authors. In fact, papers by U.S. scientists account for only 21 percent of the papers in chemistry and 30 percent of the papers in physics. Moreover, an analysis of the citations of articles in these journals shows that U.S. researchers make frequent use of foreign research results and, in fact, have increased their reliance on foreign results in recent years. For example, the West German chemical literature for 1979 received 20 percent more citations in U.S. literature than would be expected from examination of the West German share of the total literature in chemistry.2
Scientific meetings and symposia also play an important role in communication. Such meetings permit scientists to communicate their findings more rapidly than by publishing in a journal—and at the same time to receive instant feedback and ideas from their colleagues. The informal exchange of ideas that is characteristic of such meetings can also lead to significant modifications of research, to collaborative efforts, and to the avoidance of duplicative work. Because such meetings are most productive for all involved if the leading researchers in a given field participate, such meetings often attract international attendance.
Informal discussions among colleagues are also a critical element in scientific advance. Such communications obviously can and do occur most readily and frequently with colleagues in a researcher’s own institution. For example, scientists in universities work closely with their own graduate students, and, as a result, graduate students are fully informed and totally immersed in the most advanced work in their fields. Such informal communications can also result in international transfers of information. Many graduate students in scientific and technical fields in U.S. universities are foreign students. (About 20 percent of the doctoral degrees from U.S. universities in 1979 were awarded to foreigners.) Moreover, it is common practice for preprints of research papers that will be published in scientific journals to be circulated among scientists working in the same field in the United States and abroad. There is also worldwide travel by major U.S. and foreign research workers who visit colleagues and their laboratories and exchange ideas.
There are also various governmentally sponsored international exchange programs in science and technology, including several with the Soviet Union, that are explicitly intended to foster international communication. These exchanges have figured prominently in the debate over national security losses.
Bilateral Intergovernmental Agreements
There have been bilateral (U.S.-U.S.S.R.) intergovernmental agreements in science and technology since 1972, when a total of 11 such agreements were signed by the two countries. These agreements covered a variety of joint programs in such fields as natural environment, space research, health, and oceanography.
These bilateral programs began to be reduced following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and by 1980 the number of visits that took place under these exchanges had dropped by 75 percent. Four of the agreements were extended for a 5-year period in 1981, but following the recent events in Poland, the U.S. government decided not to renew the agreements that expire in 1982.
Certain fields covered by the bilaterals—for example, plasma physics, condensed-matter physics, and fundamental properties of matter—are areas of considerable Soviet strength. These exchanges have resulted in important contributions to science from both sides.
National Academy of Sciences Exchange Programs
Since 1959 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has operated an exchange program with the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, providing for visits of from 1 to 12 months in duration for scientists and engineers in all fields. The Soviet participants have generally been older and more experienced than the American participants—visits to the United States are eagerly sought by Soviet scientists—but the quality of Soviet visitors has varied considerably. NAS has placed increased emphasis on assuring the professional competence of the Soviet visitors, but the Academy has had only limited success in obtaining specified visitors from the U.S.S.R. In recent years the size of the program has been reduced; the 1982 program level is 50 person-months of visits in each direction. In addition, periodic U.S.-Soviet symposia have taken place in various fields, such as radioastronomy, mathematics, and biochemistry. Although the quality of the meetings has been high, this type of meeting was suspended by NAS in 1980 in response to the Soviet treatment of Andrei Sakharov, who is a foreign member of NAS.
International Research and Exchange Board Program
The International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) administers a U.S.-Soviet exchange program under the sponsorship of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. Up to 50 Soviet graduate students and young faculty members participate each year, with visits lasting 9 months to a year. This program is conducted in cooperation with the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education. Eighty to 90 percent of the U.S. participants have worked in the social sciences or humanities, while 90 percent of the Soviet participants have been involved in science or engineering. Despite this lack of symmetry, the program has served an important role in strengthening Soviet studies in the United States.