The Natural Sciences: A Response to David Cohen
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I will confine my remarks on constituting international expertise to the narrow realm of the natural sciences, perhaps the one area where one might first suppose that there is little relevance to the topic of today's symposium.
There are, of course, obvious international dimensions to any scholarly pursuits in any field. For example, in the social sciences, extraordinarily intriguing studies are underway here at our University on differences in how various cultures perceive ``self'', and how various cultures establish hierarchical strategies for discrimination. Moreover, fields such as archaeology are international in character, requiring access to specific sites and to historical information that know no present-day boundaries. But I will set aside what could be an interesting foray into these areas and concentrate my remarks on my own area of the natural sciences, and leave the other areas to those with more appropriate expertise.
In addition, I will take advantage of the title posed by Professor Cohen's paper to try to highlight what appears to be a neglected set of expertise on university campuses, namely the international expertise possessed by faculty in the natural sciences.
Contrary to what one might first expect, a successful natural scientist has to be a literal font of international expertise. Neither scientific talent nor premier research facilities are constrained to lie within specified national boundaries. A scientist who is not familiar with work being done in his or her field at sites around the world, or is not familiar with research opportunities that exist at key sites in other countries, just will not be able to remain competitive.
Even we in the U.S. cannot embrace a paternalistic view of science conducted in other countries, for in many important areas of science, we are not the world leader. If we ignore the work done in other countries, we do so only at our own peril.
We cannot even claim to have been centrally involved in the most fundamental steps in the development of quantum mechanics, the underpinning of much of today's physics, chemistry, and high technology. This work was done by Europeans, and it required the efforts of Randall and others in forums such as the famous Michigan Summer Schools to introduce quantum mechanics to the U.S. in the 1930's and 1940's.
Molecular biology — the keystone of the ``new biology'' — was a U.S.-European collaboration. The crucial first experiment leading to the establishment of DNA's genetic material was done by a British public health officer, Fred Griffiths. His work led ultimately to the great interest in DNA, climaxing in the work of the American, James Watson and the two Britishers, Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick, that established the double helical nature of the DNA molecule.
Not only do scientists have to be aware of developments in other countries, we often must immerse ourselves in the actual cultures of these countries for extended periods of time in order to interact with colleagues, use their facilities, or gain access to specific sites embedded in those countries.
For some of us, these penetrations occur without our paying much attention to the new worlds we enter, because our focus is tightly directed to the research we are doing at the time. But in spite of that wonderful stereotype, that is not what normally happens. Many scientists use the irresistible opportunities presented by their research to become quite expert on the cultures of their hosts. In that way, we contribute to the development of international expertise within the academy. Though that expertise may not be rigorous in nature, inasmuch as it accrues as a byproduct of other activities, it nevertheless adds to the wealth of knowledge we can share with our students and colleagues.
In the natural sciences it is assumed that the most fundamental laws governing nature hold independent of the geographical site at which they are conceived or applied. Thus, Isaac Newton might have constructed his law of gravity in England, with the benefit of an apple, or in Hawaii with the benefit of a pineapple. Einstein might have worked out the theory of relativity in a patent office in Switzerland, or on a beach in California.
This universality of the laws of nature, coupled with the fact that brain power is the most important instrument in the search for these laws, and that smart people are distributed throughout the world, means that if we want to go after the pieces to the complex puzzle of nature, we do so most effectively by sharing knowledge.
The argument for global cooperation becomes even more cogent when issues such as global warming and environmental pollution are considered. How inappropriate it would be for us to advance theories on global warming after examining only data from the fractional piece of the world we call the U.S.
Very complex political interactions between nations will be required in future years just to support the scientific research desired by scientists within those countries. The European Organization for Nuclear Research is an example in which some dozen European countries have pooled resources to build one the world's premier nuclear research laboratories — one which rival's the best we have in this country. No single European country could have mustered the resources and will to do this on its own.
The stormy debate in the Congress this very afternoon over the future of the Superconducting Super Collider is perhaps an illustration that the U.S. has just about reached its capacity to unilaterally fund large scale facilities. Future projects of this type may have to be internationalized from the outset. The complex path that must be followed by scientists in each involved country to obtain the support of their colleagues and the appropriate governmental agencies is only further compounded when binational discussions and agreement are required.
In the case of the SSC, for example, it had long been hoped that Japan would contribute approximately a billion dollars to that project. But to get a billion dollars, one must ask for it. Can a US administration that has blasted Japan for unfair trade practices (and has been chided by Japan for not having its own economic house in order), courteously ask for a billion dollar contribution? If the contribution were given, could our rhetoric remain as strident? If Japan has just unexpectedly contributed $9 billion to the Gulf War effort, can it justify to its own people the additional contribution to the SSC? If Japan gave a billion dollars to the SSC in Dallas, Texas, should they not expect us to contribute a corresponding sum to their new collider near Tsukuba? If we were to do that, what would be the point of it all? As one can easily see, international science funding can quickly become a complex subject all its own.
There is a great need to study how we should best structure our efforts in a world scientific community to advance science in a way that optimally engages our respective national governments. Indeed, I have suggested at the most recent meeting of the Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on which I serve, that we launch a study on this very topic. That fifteen member Board, which contains members such as David Abshire, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Harold Brown, James Schlesinger, Josh Lederberg, William Brock, and Ann Armstrong — all of whom were present at our meeting week before last— is able to bring an enormous wealth of real experience on how to best involve diplomatic efforts in arriving at multinational decisions to support large scientific efforts.
I want to provide another brief glimpse of how purely scientific goals can get entrapped by world developments. As mentioned in the introductions, I am a member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian. We have an absolutely top rate set of tropical studies laboratories in Panama, where many long-term studies have been underway for decades. I visited there approximately a year ago and was fascinated by what I saw. It is one place where the loss of rain forest is being studied on a tree-by-tree, species-by-species basis. Well, we are in Panama as a result of the Canal Zone Treaty. By the end of this century we must give the Canal Zone back to Panama. What does that mean? Can the Smithsonian stay, or will we have to leave as well? The massive operations we have there (with the Smithsonian perhaps becoming the largest US employer there after the military leaves) cannot be run by the Panamanians. The U.S. State Department previously indicated that it did not want us to stay — because it would appear as though the U.S. was not going to live up to its promise to leave after all. The present Panamanian Government would like us to stay, because it is aware that our work is ultimately of value to that region of the world. But without a treaty, future anti-American waves could disrupt years of work. Such fears are not without foundation. Indeed, I visited the deeply forested area where Smithsonian staff were abducted by the Panamanian forces during the American deployment to capture General Noriega.
All signs point to our remaining in Panama as a thriving research entity. But there is no doubt that significant changes will occur in the conditions of our presence. Research facilities such as these are very much influenced by world developments, and scientists themselves must be astute in their efforts to maintain access.
In the above I have made a simplistic argument that we should reach out to scientists in all nations because somehow the amount of knowledge we acquire is proportional to the number of bright people thinking about relevant scientific problems. There may even be further reasons for interacting globally.
The solutions to many complex problems come through very abstract thought processes — which some brilliant discoverers can not even recall how they first constructed. Some even say they found the solutions in their sleep. It is undoubtedly true that one's culture, one's way of looking at the world, has some influence on how one goes about trying to solve intricate problems. Finding solutions to certain problems may be regarded as being akin to finding the narrow path through a labyrinth leading to a chamber within one of the ancient pyramids; one's hunch as to where the path begins can be pivotal to the discovery. Many solutions to key science problems turn out to have beautiful symmetry. Indeed, tremendous progress can be made in identifying solutions by simply demanding that the solutions be beautiful (an example is the eightfold way in the mathematics of particle symmetries). But what is beautiful to members of one culture may even be ugly to members of another. Thus, while there is advantage to broadening the world of scientists just from the point of shear brain power, there is also the prospect of the increase in the depth of understanding to be gained by tapping various cultures. By so doing, we draw upon the wealth of human experiences accumulated over the centuries in the development of numerous distinct cultures. That just has to be a powerful weapon against the unknown.
It is tantalizing to note here that some nations seem to do much better in the sciences than others. I had long been intrigued by the Danes' enormous accomplishments in science over the centuries. Keep in mind that Denmark now has a population near that of Indiana. But Danish scientists such as Tycho Brahe, Neils Bohr, Aage Bohr and others have literally changed our whole view of the world. Besides these giants, tiny Denmark has produced a generation of famous molecular biologists, including one of the foremost microbial molecular biologists of our time, Ole Maaloe.
I spent a wonderful sabbatical at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, but I could never tell if it was the lively Danish spirit, their worship of their distinguished scientists, their fervent quest for the fundamental inner-workings of nature, or the great Carlsberg beer's influence on the lively scientific debates that formed the basis for their scientific prowess. While I do not want to minimize the value of the latter — by the way, Carlsberg is one of the major donors to the Institute — I do believe that the importance that a society places on science and science education can influence its scientific excellence for generations, and that Denmark provides a supporting example.
Contrary to the impression I may have left so far, not every act in our world encourages the sharing of knowledge across international borders. We are, of course, well aware of the arguments for national security, and why information with military significance is kept secret by each nation. But there is another, perhaps even more pervasive, reason emerging today — that of economic competitiveness. With the decline of Cold War threats, many countries are now turning their attention to advancing their interests through securing high technology commercial advantages over their competitor countries.
Congressional concerns about whether we are sharing too much of our cutting-edge advances with other countries have been often expressed. Indeed, hearings will be held in Washington later this month on the very issue of foreign access to US science and technology, and I know of one distinguished member of our faculty who has been called to testify.
Several years ago, I chaired a study for the National Science Board, as we tried to arbitrate the issue of whether restrictions that some in the government wanted to enforce on, for example, what kind of conferences could be held at a university, could be justified by the rate at which the Soviet bloc was gaining access to valuable technology being developed at our universities. These were complex problems and scary times. They were subjects that could easily divide long-time, rational friends. On the one side was the argument that fruits from tax supported research should not be handed over to potential or declared enemies of our country. On the other side was the recognition that if an environment is created within universities where faculty and students could not openly discuss their work, there would soon be no technology to worry about.
We live in an environment where the international aspects of our daily work are ever present. I will belabor the point because I believe it is important to the topic of this afternoon's discussion. We cannot avoid becoming international experts. I draw upon typical activities of our faculty in physics to fabricate a mosaic illustrating this.
We wake up in the morning and log onto our computer account — and may find ten messages from colleagues spread throughout the world. Some may be arguing with us over some result we recently published; others may be providing some previously requested information about a particle detector being jointly developed by a collaboration consisting of three U.S. universities and three foreign universities; another is a recommendation for a student in Poland to be considered by the department for admission; and so on.
At work, we stop by the FAX machine and get reams of pages of a preprint of a scientific article from a CNRS institute in Marseilles we requested on an urgent basis, and a letter of recommendation for the promotion of a young faculty member from his former mentor in Heidelberg.
One professor stops by to tell me he is off to the Russian High Energy Physics Institute for a two-week stay, even though he had just heard that Gorbachev was being asked to extend his vacation outside Moscow . Our faculty member will be leading the first experiment to be conducted on a new accelerator being built in FSU — and that is the key challenge for him. Nevertheless, close personal ties he has developed over the years with Russian colleagues will cause him to have insights into the historic developments there unmatched by almost any other external observer. Because it is known that he is not there to study the internal political developments, but to pursue the universal quest for scientific knowledge, a unique window isopen to him.
Another professor is seen going into her classroom — a classroom that consists of more than 40% international students.
At a lunch meeting of the faculty in the League, we hear a presentation from one of our professors who has just returned from a sabbatical in Paris. We also hear brief remarks from a professor from Ghana who is spending the semester with us.
I could continue to play out this skit, based on real events in our department, but I believe the audience has already gotten the point. No active scientist can escape being exposed to the truly international environment in which we inescapably live.
It is well known that a very significant fraction of the physical science and engineering faculty in top research institutions are from other countries. These individuals know first hand the cultures of their own homelands, and of the U.S. They have doctorates, which signals a breadth of interests beyond the narrow confines of their own fields. These individuals most certainly represent a rich resource for any university, and should be drawn upon for the enrichment of a campus' international studies.
Through our seminars and visitor programs, we interact with a stellar set of international experts. Let me illustrate this with a special example of a physicist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a place where I served as Provost for five years. The physics department at Stony Brook is fortunate to count as a member of its faculty, the Nobelist C.N. (Frank) Yang. Frank is a highly admired scientist, in this country, in China, and the rest of the world. Through the quiet efforts of Frank and a few of his colleagues, the background was constructed for the historic opening to China made by President Nixon. Frank visits us here regularly at the University of Michigan as one of our Goudsmit Visiting Professors. During his visits I had often made arrangements for him to visit with Mike Okensberg who was then in our Chinese Studies Program, where they reminisced on the days (while Mike was in the White House) they worked on the China initiative. Frank played a unique role in bringing about one of the most far-reaching changes in the world political scene. He had virtually unlimited access to the U.S. President and to the Premier of China. Any university having access to such faculty expertise should not overlook its unique value.
Strong communities of international expertise exist within the sciences. They are formed by the very nature of science itself. Within these communities are experts on individual cultures and geo-political systems, as well as science. Creative tensions do indeed exist within these communities, resulting from competitive nationalism, as well as different styles of doing science. But the net effect is healthy. Indeed, I can cite numerous specific examples of how science has been advanced by this competition.
In this rather long exposition in which I have tried to paint a picture of the international dimensions of the life of a university natural scientist, I hope I have convinced you that scientists at a university like ours represent a real source of community expertise that should be utilized fully within the framework of providing our students a broad education. Moreover, through the various modalities we have within the university for faculty interactions, from the Society of Fellows, faculty meetings, the various socio-academic clubs, joint seminars, and so on, faculty with international expertise can greatly enrich our entire academic community.
Homer A. Neal is Professor of Physics and Vice President for Research at the University of Michigan.