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The Scientific Revolution: Study Paper by Richard Nixon, Vice President, United States of America

September 08, 1960

We are in the midst of the most explosive scientific revolution the world has ever seen. We are penetrating the outer immensities of space at the same time we explore the inner molecular secrets of life. The breadth of efforts and the prospects of endless change now challenge the ultimate limits of our thinking.

The aim of this statement is to indicate my views as to how America should meet this challenge and to contribute to a better understanding of what is happening and what is likely to happen in the scientific revolution through which we are passing?

At the outset, it is essential that we recognize science as a many-purpose tool, fully as necessary to human progress as it is to the security of free men.

Our Nation demands a strong science and a vigorous technology to defend itself, to advance personal liberty, and to raise standards of living.

Science, in turn, relies for healthy growth upon a better public understanding of what it is, of how the scientist works and of his need for resources to carry forward his work.

It would be foolhardy for us to ignore the fact that we are confronted with a serious challenge in some phases of science by the Soviet Union. However, the fact that we are challenged should not govern what we do. Our free and vigorous science, adequately supported, has met - can meet and surpass - any challenge.

In appraising the Soviet challenge, we must recognize that while they have many competent scientists they have chosen to muster their scientific strength primarily for military propaganda and similar purposes.

In the Soviet system, scientists, engineers, and materials go first to serve the State - and then, if time and money permit, to serve man. For example, they have placed great emphasis on the development of high-thrust rockets, a field where they lead us because they started their program in 1945 while we had no program worthy of the name until 1952. In contrast, their efforts in fields such as medicine are relatively mediocre as compared to ours in the United States.

Overall, in the field of science, we are well ahead of the Soviet Union today. But the fact that we are ahead is no ground for complacency. If we are to stay ahead, we must move ahead. And we will move ahead only if we adequately recognize and develop the tremendous potential of the scientific revolution.

To meet this challenge which confronts us, one cardinal point must be kept in mind. Nations do not make scientific discoveries nor do governments, industries, universities, or institutions. The great gift of discovery is reserved not to institutions but to man alone. The scientist is the pioneer, the discoverer. The omnipotent Soviet hierarchy has realized this. We, as a whole people, must realize it too.

First, we must make the necessary education available to those who have the desire and the ability. Given these creative men and women - and we are fortunate to have so many - what must we do to aid them that they in turn can help us meet the challenge? We must give them freedom to explore. We must give them an adequate facility for their work - seismographs, oceanographic ships, astronomical observatories, or whatever is the need. Finally, we must see that they have the funds for adequate salaried collaborators, assistants, instruments, and supplies. We have among us the creative men and women to meet the challenge. We have but to encourage and back them to the utmost.

We must develop a better understanding and appreciation in the United States of the scientist and his work.

One of the reasons for the Soviet Union's recent progress in the field of science is that under the Communist philosophy, science has been a critical and vital segment of overall planning throughout the 40-year existence of the Soviet Union.

In contrast, Americans as a people have been brought up from the earliest days of our history with the challenge of an unconquered wilderness and an apparently limitless frontier. It was the "doers" rather than the "thinkers" who were in greatest demand. For many years only a relatively small segment of our people felt that scholars and scholarship were important. We have had notable inventors such as Bell, Edison, Whitney, Fulton, and the Wright brothers, but these men were revered more for their invention of practical devices than were many others in the field of pure scholarship.

How many Americans know of the great contributions of Gibbs, Jausky, and Christofilos? The feeling seemed to be that scholars were a rather impractical group whose thoughts and research meant relatively little to the practical world. That attitude came to an abrupt end in the birth of the atomic bomb. Then, for the first time, large segments of our population began to realize that the fundamental research of scientists and the thought processes of the theoreticians were the vital underpinning of all new and dramatic discoveries.

The process by which scientists think, do research, and make discoveries, must be better understood by all Americans.

For example, very few of us have an adequate conception of the endless hours spent by scholars studying the electron, hours without which we would not have our television sets.

Dr. Jonas Salk is recognized as a man who brought polio vaccine into being. Yet, as he has often pointed out, dozens, even hundreds, of dedicated scientists spent a lifetime of work, frequently under trying conditions and with limited funds, in order to create, step by step, the knowledge which finally permitted him to produce a vaccine. Such a vaccine is like the capping stone on the pinnacle of a pyramid. Without all the rest of the stone, sand, and mortar which serve as underpinning, the final cap stone could not be placed. The men who built the rest of the pyramid are the unsung men of science, who are known only to their colleagues. They deserve far greater respect and support by the people whom they serve than they now receive.

But while research and technology are changing our way of life in such a manner as to demand all the vision and ability which leadership can provide, the scientific revolution should not frighten or overwhelm us.

For example, science has put into our hands the ability to predict. Yet in general this Nation has not taken full advantage - or even been fully aware of this element of predictability.

For instance, rockets are commonplace today. What the average American does not know is that much of the initial basic research on rockets was done not in Germany, not in Russia, but in the United States, decades ago, by Dr. Robert H. Goddard. In 1945, when the Americans reached German V-2 rocket bases and were querying the German rocket specialists, they were startled to have one German question them about the interrogation. "After all," he said, "you have the man in your country who knows all about rockets and from whom we got many of our ideas, Dr. Goddard."

Goddard was ignored in the United States. He was not only a man with theories, he actually built and flew rockets. In 1926 he developed and fired successfully a liquid-fuel rocket. In 1935, he shot off a rocket that went faster than sound. He developed patents for multistage rockets and a gyroscopic steering device. It was perfectly possible in the 1930's to predict missiles, rocketry, and interplanetary probes.

The British who died from the German V-2 rockets are testimony to the German awareness of the implications of Goddard's work and the unawareness of the free world.

In contrast, a current example of increasing awareness of our ability to predict and act as a result of a prediction is our present approach to the problem of fresh water resources.

Scientists - hydrologists, geologists, and meteorologists can tell us with a great degree of accuracy what the fresh water resources of any particular area are and will be. Knowing this and knowing how much fresh water is needed for each person each day, as well as for farms and industry, we can predict that certain areas and even whole States will be short of water in a relatively few years.

In view of this, we can muster our scientific resources to meet the problem before it arises. We must not wait until our homes, our farms or our industries are in dire need before we turn our serious attention to new means of obtaining more fresh water.

In the ocean we have virtually infinite water resources; there are many untapped inland sources of brackish water. Because shortages are foreseeable, we know that we must employ methods which can economically derive fresh water from both sea and brackish water sources. Conventional techniques for this purpose are far too expensive to be considered. The key is economy. Our present administration already has begun a program and has created a special office in the Department of the Interior for the research and development of pilot plants and new processes to provide additional fresh water economically.

Although it may appear to be a contradiction, one of the factors that we can with absolute surety is that major new breakthroughs in science will produce the unpredictable. This is inevitable as scientists explore into the unknown.

I recall the time Dr. Herbert F. York, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, briefed a group of Government officials on what we might learn from our explorations of outer space.

Using a blackboard, Dr. York ticked off the possibility of radiation data from the sun which could alter drastically our knowledge of earthly weather. The very close environs of space, he went on, might yield information about the high energy particles which, in turn, could greatly change our methods of harnessing energy and even our fundamental concepts of the universe. Finishing his list, Dr. York turned to his listeners:

"You may," he advised, "forget everything else I have just said, but please remember what I am about to say. Probably the most important thing we will learn in space is nowhere on my list. It is not here because we cannot now conceive what it may be. But as our exploration goes ahead it will come unexpectedly, perhaps suddenly, just as vital knowledge has come to us in the past."

Let us be clear that new and unpredictable discoveries should not disconcert us. We must have leadership which is constantly on the alert for them and their implications. For new knowledge can readily be phased into, modify, or even alter former plans. Imaginative leadership must exist not only in the executive and legislative branches of Government, but in private industry, agriculture, mining, and all parts of the economy.

New advances in science will affect the entire warp and woof of our national fabric. Each thread can interact upon the whole structure. A specialist in a particular field may have given adequate guidance in the past. But today and increasingly in the future, we need men who have knowledge in depth, as does a specialist, but who must also have knowledge in breadth - in short, a "generalist."

Indeed, this new requirement for "generalists" who can comprehend different but interrelated specialties stems from science itself. Until quite recently the many branches of science were quite distinct. A meteorologist recorded and tried to predict weather, an astronomer scanned the heavens, and a physician treated man.

Today the traditional distinct boundaries among different sciences have become blurred and fused. As scientists inquired further in their respective fields, they arrive at the basic common denominators of the universe - units of matter, the atom, and the molecule, units of energy and of time and so on. Therefore, sciences which used to be thought of as disparate are now becoming interrelated and indeed interlocked. An astronomer may be interested in the great periodic solar eruptions which send out different types of radiation and appear to have a marked effect on our weather. Physicians, inquiring into bioclimatology, find that certain types of wind, weather, and season seem to exert a definite effect on man and animals.

For example, when the so-called chinook or foehn winds blow, the automobile accident and suicide rates appear to increase. Coronary thrombosis, too, is found to be more prevalent at one season than in another. Thus, for fruitful study, the physician must be conversant with the basic physical principles under investigation by the astronomer and he, in turn, must have a comprehension of the basic phenomenology of medicine. Without a mutuality of understanding, collaborative research is impossible.

A logical extension of the nascent merging of different sciences in a common cause is the mutual use of theory, techniques, and instrumentation which once were the province of a single science. This fusion has created a new dimension in science. Its fulfillment is usually beyond the ability of our conventional research structure.

An example can be seen in the problem we face in meteorology. In 1958 the United States produced only 14 Ph. D.'s in meteorology. The meteorology departments of universities cannot hope to provide essential tools for modern research in weather. These include high altitude airplanes, upper atmosphere rockets and the means to launch them, giant wind tunnels and the like. The most logical facility for the job would be a national meteorological institute. Already such an institute has specifically been recommended by representatives of 14 universities who considered the problem, at Government request, for many months.

I believe the next Congress should adopt legislation authorizing the National Science Foundation to take the leadership in sponsoring a major new program for basic research.

By "sponsor" I do not mean control, finance, and operate. The program should be conducted through a number of basic research institutes located in the principal geographical areas of the country. Financial support of these institutes should be as much as possible a joint public and private enterprise with both Federal and State Governments participating on one hand and universities, private industry, and foundations on the other. The Federal funds should be made available on a matching basic with the State and private contributions.

The research institutes should be established cooperatively by our universities which engage in graduate research programs. They should be governed by boards created by these universities. A liaison with the National Science Foundation would be desirable but essentially the system of administration would be comparable to that of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, an interdisciplinary facility established to explore the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The new basic research institutes will complement in an important way the work of existing Government-supported research such as that conducted by National Institutes of Health and the facilities of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, and other agencies. They will also complement the splendid efforts now sponsored directly by the Nation's colleges and universities and by the existing private institutes such as the Rockefeller Institute and the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J.

Indeed, institutes as research and training centers must be a vital factor in our future development of science and technology. They should in no way preempt the role of the university, nor its separate and valid claim for our support. Rather, institutes should complement the university whether they are affiliated directly or are conducted independently. They would provide not only special facilities as in the example of the proposed meteorological institute, but would be centers where men representing many different scientific fields - interested in common problems - could gather. Thus, varied yet mutually reinforcing viewpoints would be brought to bear on major problems whose dimensions cross over into many specialty fields.

These research centers would be ideal for graduate students to learn the numerous complementary disciplines which are creating exciting new fields of scientific endeavor. The most successful basic research has always been coupled with the training of young scientists. It is important that the two go together, both for the most favorable development of the new mind, but more importantly to keep the process of exploration from growing sterile.

For example, one particularly interesting and relatively new aspect of science is our rapidly increasing knowledge of health, disease, and heredity at the molecular level. The necessary research requires biophysicists, geneticists, physicians, chemists, mathematicians, electronic engineers, and the like. The new graduate students in these fields are readily susceptible to the process of intellectual cross-fertilization.

Both the purposes of this training and the bringing together of such diverse investigators with their complex and costly equipment are best served by an institute.

These additional points should be emphasized:

1. Institutes should be small rather than large. Bigness results in departmentalization and compartmentalization and tends to preclude the desired cross-fertilization among investigators.

2. If affiliated directly with universities, institutes should maintain a degree of autonomy. This is absolutely vital because these institutes should be a major addition to our basic research effort.

Far too often we overburden the scientific pathfinder with too much of teaching, administration, committee work, and a host of other "busyness" which saps his energy and cannibalizes his time. In the relatively autonomous research institute, this can be prevented.

Basic research is the indispensable exploration of the unknown. Applied research is the conversion of the discoveries of basic research into products, techniques, processes, and services. Because of our heritage of expecting practical achievement from effort, we too often inquire of the basic research scientist: "What discovery do you plan to make?" Or, "What can be done with it?"

We must realize that this type of impatience for immediate results can be catastrophic. It prevents our basic research scientist from exercising his true function - achieving knowledge for its own sake.

As a nation we must realize that our 20th century pioneer, the basic research man, is one of our greatest and most precious national resources. He is the man who will make the new strides in knowledge, the breakthroughs, upon which all the rest of our science and technology depend.

We must have facilities where the creative man - the scientist with vaulting imagination - can have the opportunity and the freedom to explore.

The universe stands before us and we are at the threshold of its major exploration. The mysteries of the microcosm of our bodies and minds will yield - step by step - to our scientific understanding provided we as a nation and as a people support our scientists to the utmost.

Richard Nixon, The Scientific Revolution: Study Paper by Richard Nixon, Vice President, United States of America Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project