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Remarks in New York City: "The Research Gap: Crisis in American Science and Technology"

October 05, 1968

Most of our attention in October 1968 is focused on the crucial problems of our country that cry out for solution: war, crime, disorder, injustice and a runaway cost-of-living.

But there is another, quieter crisis at hand. It may seem less urgent and it gets fewer headlines, but it poses unparalleled dangers and opportunities.

I refer to the crisis in American science and technology.

The American scientific and technological community plays a key role in maintaining our well-being and our national security. Science and technology compose a new Atlas that upholds our economic growth, our military defense, our educational system, and our bright hopes for the future of man. The role of science and technology is so large, so complex, and so pervasive, that we sometimes merely take it for granted. At other times, we fear it unreasonably, resent its power, ignore its role and deny its great promise for the future.

Science has served mankind faithfully and well. It has dramatically extended the average lifetime, shortened geographical distances, increased industrial productivity, reduced poverty, and in the long trial of war, contributed significantly to the cause of freedom. Since World War II, it has helped build deterrent forces that have prevented another major conflict among the great powers.

New Dawn for Freedom

If science and technology were to founder or stagnate, many of our hopes would collapse. To the extent that we neglect this source of our greatness, and to the extent that we fail to preserve the conditions of openness and order that made our progress possible, we are living off the land of civilization without refertilizing it. We must not let such a negative drift gain momentum.

Instead, we must bring about a new dawn of scientific freedom and progress. As the world's investment in science expands, the impact of technological progress will be more profound. Scientific knowledge doubled between 1750 and 1900; again between 1900 and 1950; yet again between 1950 and 1960. By 1970 it is expected to double again. In twenty years the world may be as enormously different from today as 1968 is different from 1900.

How much this change will benefit mankind will be determined largely by the location of world leadership in science and technology. If the free world maintains scientific superiority, the growth of science will support the growth of economic and political freedom.

We have this advantage: free societies provide a more attractive setting for intellectual activity than do totalitarian societies. Since World War II almost all the movement in the scientific community has been from East to West. A totalitarian lead in research and development is likely only if the U. S. follows short-sighted policies.

Research Gap

Today, the United States is shortchanging its scientific community. We are risking the opening of a research gap between our effort and that of the Soviet Union.

Faced with dynamic possibilities for science, the current Administration is hobbled by the static philosophy that technological potentialities are limited—that we have reached a technological "plateau."

This attitude is particularly perilous in the realm of defense. The belief that a static balance of power can be maintained, based on a common "plateau" of technological achievement, ignores the dynamic and volatile progress of science today, which is incomparably more rapid and variable than ever before.

In few areas of development is activity so intense and productive as in Soviet military research and development. Although lagging for years, the Soviet Union in 1967 was for the first time estimated to be spending more on defense research and development than the U.S. Thanks to rapid scientific and technological advances, Moscow now commands a full panoply of offensive and defensive strategic weapons, including an orbital nuclear delivery capability; ever-improving tactical military equipment, communications facilities, surface navel and merchant vessels; and a large number of nuclear powered, swift and quiet submarines. Together, these advances could — if we stand still — ultimately make the Soviet Union militarily dominant.

The real danger, however, does not stem from existing weapons, but from possible breakthroughs by the huge Soviet research and development establishment. The United States can afford to be selective in our own weapons only if we are resolute in maintaining a comprehensive lead in research and development. Recent events have already put our lead in jeopardy.

Cutback in Development and Education

Soviet scientists have taken a bold new stride in their drive toward a landing on the moon while American scientists have been confronted with short-sighted cutback not only in the space program, but also in over-all American research and development efforts. James Webb, Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, resigned with the prediction that the Soviet Union might soon surpass the United States in space; one week later came the new Soviet moon probe, which Mr. Webb said "shows a capability that could change the basic structure and balance of power in the world."

These events culminate an ominous period in U.S. research and development. While the Soviet Union continues to graduate twice as many scientists annually as the United States, the American scientific community is demoralized by the present Administration's wavering attitude toward research and development.

During the Eisenhower Administration, funds for research and development grew by an average of about 15 per cent annually. By the end of the present Administration, while world scientific knowledge continues to grow at a rate of over ten per cent annually, inflation, spurious economy moves and basic policy miscalculations are effectively reducing U.S. research funds every year.

The sudden decline in the Federal commitment over the last four years coincided with a 20 per cent increase in the number of U.S. scientists. These new men of science, often trained through the Eisenhower Administration's National Defense Education Act, thus faced a contraction of opportunity in the research and development field. Some of them are now turning to other fields.

Scientific activity cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. The withdrawal of support disperses highly trained research teams, closes vital facilities, loses spinoff benefits, and disrupts development momentum. The current Administration has even struck at the lifeline of our future progress —science education. NASA, for example, has cut its graduate student grants from 1300 to 50. The Defense Department cut aid to colleges by $30 million; the National Science Foundation budget was decreased by one-fifth; and the National Institute of Health funds were reduced by an estimated 25 per cent. Especially hard-hit in the reductions is aid for post-doctoral students, who serve as graduate student instructors. The decline of science education is the most damaging indictment of present Administration policy; it threatens to cripple the national effort in science for years to come.

Apart from scientific manpower, fund reductions are idling masses of equipment purchased at great cost in previous years. In the name of economy, the current Administration cut into muscle.

The United States must end this depreciation of research and development in its order of national priorities.

New Emphasis on Peaceful Uses

The importance of new emphasis on research and development in defense needs no further elaboration. The needs and possibilities in the civilian realm, however, are less well recognized. Our future economic growth and competitive trade position depend on maintaining our technological lead. New breakthroughs are likely to improve human life in a multitude of ways—from increasing life expectancy to rebuilding our cities.

If our research priorities are to reflect the national interest in these areas, the Federal Government must offer vigorous leadership. Beyond the need for reasonable and responsible increases in subsidies for basic research, there are several specific goals that are of such commanding importance that the government should commit itself now to their achievement.

For example, we must develop new methods of treating the mentally ill. At present, we spend some $15 billion annually on mental health. One half of the hospital beds in the country are occupied by mentally ill patients. About 10 per cent of the American people spend some time in a mental hospital; the patient load in the country's mental hospitals continues to rise. Research on the molecular and chemical structure of the brain is producing important data relating to certain psychological maladies, including schizophrenia. Further efforts may well lead to medications that allow drastic reductions in the need to hospitalize the mentally ill. This would end untold suffering and save the country billions annually. The benefits are worth a major Federal commitment. At present, the effort is being cut back.

A second imperative worthy of Federal support is development of a source of cheap energy. Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has said: "The basic raw materials for civilized life are energy, water, food and certain minerals. Energy is the most basic of these. If inexhaustible and really cheap energy were available, we could use it to pump fresh water from long distances or even to extract fresh water from the sea; we could use this water to produce agricultural products; we could electrolyze water ... get hydrogen . . . and manufacture nitrogenous fertilizer; we could reduce metals from their ores, and even convert coal into liquid fuel. But energy is the primary requirement.

With the goal of fulfilling that requirement, I believe that we should step up the Atomic Energy Commission's breeder reactor project, which could provide virtually inexhaustible energy at an extremely low cost. At present, this project is going forward very slowly though its promise for mankind is as great as any other likely development.

Another area in which there is great potential is the laser—a new device that may be able to accomplish such diverse ends as building tunnels, vaporizing coal, intercepting missiles, communicating in space, and curing retina defects in the eye. Pollution research promises new ways to prevent the poisoning of the air we breathe and the water we drink. The possibilities in the realm of transportation excede most of the dreams of science fiction. New computer technology promises great increases in industrial productivity and great relief from drudgery.

Government and Industry Cooperation

Our firm national purpose should be to stimulate these developments by broad support of science and intelligent cooperation between government and private enterprise.

Today, although Government is to some extent in control of large areas of the nation's research and development effort, it is not really in control of itself in this field. There is little cross-fertilization among agencies and departments of the Federal Government responsible for research and development. Ideas and programs that might have applications in other departments are frequently unknown. The President's science advisors and the National Science Foundation limit themselves chiefly to broad questions of national science policy.

It would be an urgent goal of my Administration to devise effective means by which it could cooperate with industry and the academic community in an effort to make maximum use of scientific advances to help solve major national problems. This effort also would seek to assist state and local governments.

Our goal is to make the United States first again in the crucial area of research and development.

Individual Initiative

A new national commitment is a necessary investment in the future. However, this aim must not be exploited as a mandate for the growth of Federal power. There should be no Federal scientific czar. I would propose to use the new miracles of science not to expand the powers of government, but to enhance the vitality of private enterprise and to increase the mastery of the individual over his own fate. Government must support and stimulate technology, but except in the realm of defense and to a large extent in the exploration of space, government must not dominate the effort.

In most areas of science, Washington should serve as a catalyst, sponsoring research and scholarship. Even in areas where Washington must necessarily take the lead, government must stand ready to relinquish to private enterprise projects in which the national security or the national interest do not require public control. One example which could be imitated in other fields is the space communications satellite (COMSAT), a partnership between business and government for the benefit of all.

In other areas such as housing, transportation and medical technology —where the international implications are not so great—private enterprise could take full responsibility. It should always be remembered that most of our greatest inventions were the products not of large-scale planning and control but represented the efforts of individuals working alone or in small groups on the frontiers of science. We must never surrender America's greatest asset—the freedom and initiative of its private citizens and economy. In embracing the promise of technology we must never stifle the spirit of man.

New Horizons

In a way, the feelings of bitterness and frustration in our time stem from a sense of claustrophobia; problems close in on us and we become preoccupied with dangers and difficulties. But by the exploration of the infinite and the infinitesimal, we can gain new perspectives, which offer visions of new solutions. We can cure disease, create cheaper energy, eliminate the pressures of scarcity. We can reinvigorate our society by opening new dimensions of hope, new vistas of change.

We must transcend the cramped horizons of the last few years and embrace the opportunity for genuine progress.

APP NOTE: From section five of the volume "Nixon Speaks Out" titled, "Unmet Needs and America's Opportunities".

Richard Nixon, Remarks in New York City: "The Research Gap: Crisis in American Science and Technology" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/326779

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