Book Review: Return of the gadfly

Return of the gadfly

Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion, by Daniel S. Greenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, 530 pp.

David M. Hart

Webster’s defines gadfly as “an intentionally annoying person who stimulates or provokes others especially by persistent irritating criticism.” In the case of Daniel Greenberg, who has been the gadfly of the U.S. scientific establishment for four decades, stimulation and provocation have often been by leavened by wit and always motivated by sharp intelligence. Greenberg has made a career of puncturing the self-important puffery that sometimes passes for public discourse in this community, discerning the self-interest and turf conflicts that typically lie beneath high-flown rhetoric. He cultivated this unique sensibility as the first news editor of Science in the 1960s and then as the proprietor of Science and Government Report, which he wrote, edited, and published between 1971 and 1997. Along with the news, Greenberg brought us memorable characters such as Dr. Grant Swinger of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds, whose motto “something always comes along” remains as apposite today as ever.

Greenberg’s first book, The Politics of Pure Science, originally published in 1967 and recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press, provided more than one generation of students with a fresh perspective on the relationship between science and government in the United States. It reviewed what was known at the time about the history of this peculiar relationship and analyzed in depth some of the mega-projects of the era, such as the ill-fated Mohole, which was supposed to drill a deep hole in the ocean floor but wound up drilling one in the National Science Foundation budget instead. Most memorably, the book provided pithy characterizations of its subject that still ring true. The scientific community, Greenberg wrote, evinces “chauvinism” (in favor of its craft), “xenophobia” (toward outsiders who might intrude on it), and “evangelism” (aimed at prompting those outsiders to share the chauvinism). Although always skeptical and sometimes ironic, The Politics of Pure Science nonetheless maintained a sense of humor and an appreciation for the good will that motivated even the most pathetic antics that it chronicled.

I would like nothing better than to report that Greenberg’s new book meets the high standard that he set in his first book and sustained throughout his career. But I cannot do so. Science, Money, and Politics is badly in need of an editor. Greenberg devotes many pages to minor episodes that divert attention from his main arguments. The book is repetitious as well. Worst of all, it is tendentious. Greenberg’s wit and tolerance of human foibles have been swallowed up by cynicism.

In spite of the book’s literary flaws, Greenberg’s admirable record of tilting at the conventional wisdom and breaking comfortable silences impels us to weigh the book’s substantive arguments carefully. The gadfly delivers a stinging three-count indictment of the contemporary scientific community and adduces a large body of evidence to support it.

The first count alleges (to put it even more baldly than Greenberg does) that scientists will do virtually anything for money. Underlying the insatiable demand for funding, he emphasizes, is the exponential growth of the number of would-be principal investigators. Science faculty members do not practice birth control in producing graduate students, in large part because they need graduate student labor in order to publish and not perish. As a result, each generation is larger and more desperate for support than the preceding one. Industrial sponsorship of research and more recently the prospect of massive equity payoffs have added fuel to the funding fire. Greenberg supplies some shocking anecdotes to support this claim, such as the MIT professor who was accused of using homework assignments as a method of corporate espionage. More important, he describes institutional failures to preserve scientific integrity, such as the forced departures of the top editors of the New England Journal of Medicine in the face of revenue-generating pressure from the Journal’s owner, the Massachusetts Medical Society.

This count of the indictment warrants further investigation. There is evidence that patients may be suffering and even dying because conflicts of interest are ignored. There is evidence that universities are pushing faculty to produce patents, most of which have no economic or scientific value. However, there are enormous disciplinary and institutional variations in these trends. Moreover, in the cases described by Greenberg in which concerns about “grubbing for money” were most acute, efforts were made to defend the traditional norms of science. One of the most important developments in science policy in recent decades is the emergence of what Rutgers professor David Guston has labeled “boundary organizations,” which attempt to mediate systematically between scientific organizations and their societal environments and to resolve conflicts that emerge where they intersect. Not all of these organizations are the miserable failures that Greenberg assumes them to be. University research administrators and technology transfer offices at their best, for instance, can shield faculty members from objectionable conditions that sponsors may try to impose. Members of the scientific community, particularly the leaders of its institutions, should examine the record closely to learn lessons, both positive and negative, from the diverse experiences that are accumulating.

Scare tactics

The second count of the indictment maintains that in their quest for public funding scientists regularly resort to scare tactics. The community’s “report industry,” Greenberg argues, can be counted on to produce volumes of justification tailored to suit any crisis. Dr. Grant Swinger never makes an appearance in Science, Money, and Politics, but his spirit hovers over it. Many episodes of opportunistic report writing appear in the book, most of which are best forgotten. He devotes nearly 40 pages, for instance, to a cascade of reports during the 1980s and 1990s claiming with little foundation that the U.S. would soon face a shortage of Ph.D.’s. Greenberg worries that such intellectual elasticity will ultimately trigger a public backlash. He finds, however, few traces of such a reaction. The evidence on this count may be strong, but the crime is little more than political jaywalking, taken in stride by the citizenry and their representatives in Washington.

Indeed, Greenberg shows that the well of public credulity with respect to science is dangerously deep. If the public will believe virtually anything, it hardly matters what is funded. Pork is as good as peer review. On this point, Greenberg’s journalistic acumen produces evidence that goes beyond the ordinary, most notably Clinton science advisor Jack Gibbons’ candid comparison of the superconducting supercollider (SSC) and the international space station. The space station, Gibbons confesses, was scientifically unjustifiable but politically unstoppable. The SSC, on the other hand, was “good science…but not that well connected to people or jobs.” Gibbons is at most a reluctant accomplice to the killing of that good science and the care and feeding of the white elephant that the space station has become. The perpetrators are politicians who approach science policy as just another way to bring Federal dollars to their constituents.

The third count of the indictment charges scientists with abandoning their social responsibilities. Greenberg believes that scientists, as the creators of powerful and potentially dangerous knowledge, are obliged to help their fellow citizens make good decisions about its uses. He chronicles the attenuation and occasional silencing of some significant voices for responsible science, including the Federation of American Scientists, plagued by slumping membership, and MIT’s Technology Review, now reinvented in the gee-whiz mode of Popular Mechanics. Senior statesmen of science, he shows, now double as consultants. These are telling points, yet the case is not closed. The “greatest generation” was not entirely composed of paragons, as Jessica Wang has shown in her book on post-World War II anticommunism in science, and not all the causes of 1960s liberalism were worthy. Comparisons to more realistic historical standards might yield a somewhat kinder judgment than that found in this book.

This judgment is particularly and unduly harsh with respect to scientific leaders who have answered the call by serving the country in governmental advisory positions in recent decades. They have been “humbled,” “tamed,” and “politically neutered,” according to Greenberg. Politics, in short, triumphs over science. Yet in many of the cases cited in Science, Money, and Politics, there are scientists on both sides of the issue and enough wiggle room in the facts for all of them to make a plausible case that they have effectively upheld their principles. Would we prefer, in any case, that the experts be on top, rather than on tap? Greenberg sometimes leaves the impression that he would, as when he advocates that scientists become more involved in electoral politics, both as candidates and as supporters.

This position, so incongruous in the context of the indictment but nonetheless stated repeatedly, suggests that idealism lies beneath Greenberg’s crusty surface. Despite all he has witnessed, he believes in science with a capital S: unambiguous truth revealed by dint of human ingenuity and hard work. The shades of gray that pervade the borderlands where science meets society frustrate the true believer. Over the years, the abrasion of that idealism against Washington reality produced many enlightening sparks. One hopes that more gadflies will follow where Greenberg has led.

David M. Hart ([email protected]) is associate professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the author of Forged Consensus: Science, Technology, and Economic Policy in the U.S., 1921–1953 (Princeton University Press, 1998).

Cite this Article

Hart, David M. “Return of the gadfly.” Issues in Science and Technology 18, no. 2 (Winter 2002).

Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Winter 2002