Fighting For Higher Funding While Combating A Sense of 'Entitlement'

The absence of a Cold War threat has re-opened the debate on where and to what extent the United States should be a leader in science. Without competition form the Soviet Union, the justifications for science have become much more hard-nosed. At the same time, some scientists have a sense of entitlement to funding that is not healthy, either.

So says Christoph Leemann, interim director at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

In this second and final excerpt of his recent interview with NTW Editor Scott Nance, Leemann discusses his smaller facility's role in the broader DOE national lab complex and takes on tough issues regarding the support for science in this country.

Q: The lab here is not officially designated a "national lab." Does the fact that it is a smaller facility pose a challenge?

A: I think we're into semantics. Yes, we do not have "[national] lab" in our [official] title. And, that was, at one time, a very reasoned decision [for that fact].

On the other hand, there are regular events for "lab directors," [Former director] Hermann [Grunder] always went there; I always go. There are 13 of them, and I could never handle going to all 13. I think we're not even the smallest [among the DOE labs].

But, look, there are questions of size. Clearly, the smaller your overall size, the smaller your discretionary [funds] are. See you, multi-purpose laboratories have a very, very legitimate vehicle that is much, much more controversial for single-program labs.

Multi-purpose labs like Brookhaven, or Argonne, or Berkeley, they have something [called] LDRD - a lab-directed R&D...

It is a way for [lab directors] to tax their programs at some rate and use that as seed money for new programs.

Q: Do you have LDRD money?

A: We, in that sense, don't have it.

Q: You said you see some trends how basic science funding might be going...

A: I don't want to extrapolate trends yet, but I think a few things are evident.

First of all, the end of the Cold War has certainly greatly diminished the importance that fields such as nuclear and high-energy physics have in the eyes of politicians and government decision-makers.

To some extent, the Nobel Prize was just the same as a gold medal at the Olympics, On both sides, it helped demonstrate that a certain societal system was better than another one. That was one component [of the importance during the Cold War].

[Also], one couldn't possibly allow the other side to know something that we didn't know - and vice versa. That's gone today, largely.

It was against that backdrop that the [Superconducting Super Collider in Texas] could be canceled [in the early 1990s] with such relatively minor uproar. Nobody went on the streets [to protest].

[The criteria] to show that a scientific enterprise has merit are becoming rather hard-nosed: if you can show that you have an economic benefit, then that helps greatly.

By that, I mean a more precise and more verifiable statement than, "Traditionally, historically, R&D and science has been the best investments of mankind." That doesn't fly anymore.

Q: It seems like the emphasis, at least in the minds of some politicians, from basic science to applied science.

A: To some extent, right. Within basic science, it's not just thrown out. Within basic science, the question gets harder, too. And the questioning by people who are absolutely supporters of science gets harder - How relevant is your science? You can measure that to some extent, or at least develop criteria. Is this a field where the U.S. should be the world leader? One of the world leaders? A player? Or just not participate?

In the Cold War, we would say, "We have to be in everything and better be a leader." [Now] we can question that again. Why really? Where do we want to play? Where do we want to be very good? Where do we want to be the best? It's a choice.

Not every field can necessarily claim that they fall into the category of [needing to be at the forefront]. So it puts the pressure on. What is the impact of your science on neighboring sciences? In other words, how big a piece of the scientific fabric is impeded if your science is eliminated. Or in the words of one [White House Office of Management and Budget] examiner, "What does the world really lose if we zero you out?"

I am complaining a little bit, but I'm not only complaining. I think it's probably true that among some scientists there is still an entitlement mentality at work, "We're smart, therefore we ought to be funded."

Q: Is that entitlement mentality fair, or how do you deal with it?

A: I don't think an entitlement mentality, per se, is fair. You see, many scientists are terrible spokespeople for their science - that comes into the game, too. If you really can't explain what you're doing and why it's interesting, I think you better either change your field or come up soon with an explanation why your field is so deserving.

I don't see basic science on the way out, but I see the criteria for what is going to be well-funded and what is going ultimately to be eliminated... becoming tougher.

Q: You say you don't see basic on the way out but it does seem it's shrinking. When I was at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory recently, an official said nuclear physics could evaporate unless losses are made up for.

A: I'm here talking to you sitting between a rock and a hard place. Obviously, I should be advocating very, very strongly for significantly increased funding for science.

But on the other side, we really cannot look at Congress and say, "You give us [the DOE nuclear physics operation] $360 million. Who can do something with that?" That's a ludicrous position. I'm leery of the word "evaporate."

Clearly, I support any attempt to get more money into nuclear physics. On the other side, we're not getting zero. Next year, we're going to be getting somewhere between $361 and $373 million. There must be something valuable we can do with that.

You could do something useful for $300 million. But we are poorly set up to make the decisions, to arrive at an optimum solution of what you can do with any given amount of money.

There are many reasons for this. The field is scattered over a large number of institutions, with their own institutional interests. The field is rather multi-faceted, so who is to tell what is more valuable than another sub-field?

Q: How do we deal with all that?

A: We have advisory bodies and they're supposed to create consensus. But, you see, nobody there's going to commit suicide and nobody's actually opting to outright pull the knife and stab his neighbor. The tendency is to come up with compromises.

Q: What's that mean?

A: That means everybody starves - a little. That can be a prescription to sliding into mediocrity.