Sloan Foundation president Gomory calls for funding reforms

April 8, 1994

By Jeffery Kahn,

With the end of the Cold War and the dawning of a competitive global economy, the forces driving federal support of research are in a state of flux. Ralph Gomory, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, argues that the time is ripe for a clear new guiding framework.

Gomory, who spoke at LBL on Monday, April 4, described the current era as a time of confusion and frustration. On one side, he said, scientists complain about the uncertainty and adequacy of federal support. On the other, taxpayers and the government don't understand why scientific excellence has not translated into industrial and economic leadership.

"Lack of agreed upon goals has confused matters," Gomory said. "Collectively, we are in the position of attempting to find the fastest way to get somewhere without first knowing where we are going."

Gomory, who headed research at IBM for 16 years and is currently a Regents Lecturer on the UC Berkeley campus, spoke as part of the Science and Technology in a Competitive World lecture series that is jointly sponsored by LBL and UCB. During his talk, he outlined a pragmatic new framework that begins with the explicit recognition that funds are limited and priorities must be set.

Gomory said the United States should select those areas of science where it intends to maintain clear world leadership. In all areas not selected, the United States nonetheless should remain among the world leaders so that it is in a position to move quickly if developments warrant.

As to how to decide which fields of science will be given top priority, Gomory said, "I believe practical benefit is the criteria for the support of science." He said society can look to the history and track record of research in each field for guidance.

Basic science must continue to be supported, he said. Aside from adding to the human understanding of the natural universe, basic science can pay off in practical benefits, but in ways that are seldom predictable at the outset.

"I have what I call my `Uncertainty Principle for Scientific Funding,'" he said. "We can see when some area of science is useful or is about to be useful. We can't see that some area of science will be useless."

Gomory cautioned supporters of basic science about publicly promising that their work will payoff in valuable new technology. "We shouldn't look forward and speculate on what rewards might come from current basic research," he said. "Instead, we should point out the record of success. During World War II, radar and the atomic bomb showed the enormous potential of what had been considered abstract basic science. This has long been the basis for the federal support of basic science."

Society expects a practical payoff from basic science, he said, and cited quantum mechanics as a case where this expectation has been fulfilled. This fundamental field of study has resulted in consumer electronics, computers, and the Information Age.

He said some fields today are ripe with potential. Revolutionary advances into the understanding of life processes are being made in molecular biology. Gomory said the nation should pay the price necessary to maintain clear world leadership in this field.

Taking on a controversial subject, Gomory said he agreed with the federal decision not to pay to build the Superconducting Super Collider. He argued that the historical record of particle physics does not show a large societal benefit. Because of that and limited federal research funding, he argued that the United States should be content to be among the world leaders in particle physics.

During a lively session following his talk, several questioners challenged Gomory. Responding to questions about the SSC, Gomory said he was not convinced that the death of the SSC will result in a dramatic decline in particle physics in this country. "If you could convince me of that," he said, "you might change my mind about the SSC."