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Conference Addresses U.S. Support for Research

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted October 7, 1998

Conference participants included, above, Karl Pister and M.R.C. Greenwood, past and present chancellors of UC Santa Cruz.

The rise, and fall, and possible revival of federal support for university research was the topic of a lively campus conference Oct. 1 marking the 40th anniversary of the landmark National Defense Education Act (NDEA) and founding of NASA.

Jack Gibbons, recently retired assistant to President Clinton for science and technology, traced the American tradition of support for research back to scientists and presidents Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

"They understood the value of knowledge for a democratic society -- the value of education for its own sake," Gibbons said.

Speakers and panelists referred often to the jump-start that Sputnik gave to U.S. research and education, especially in science. Launched in 1957, the Soviet satellite spurred a "golden age" of U.S. university research through the 1960s, said Karl Pister, chancellor emeritus of UC Santa Cruz.

Federal support for academic research tripled between 1959 and 1964, noted Roger Geiger, professor of higher education at Penn State.

"There was basically no federal education policy before Sputnik," said Robert Rosenzweig, president emeritus of the Association of American Universities. "The NDEA was a small miracle."

Notable for his absence at the conference due to ill health was Glenn Seaborg, who, as a science advisor to President Eisenhower, fostered federal support for the combination of graduate education and basic research at universities.

But the federal share of R&D support has dropped steadily since its height in 1970, Gibbons pointed out, with private industry taking up only some of the slack. Politicians' failure to understand the crucial importance of research is at least part of the reason, he said, but the Clinton administration is trying to reverse this trend.

Studies show that up to half the economic growth in the U.S. since World War II is due to research. "The payoff of investment in research is proven," Gibbons said. "The struggle isn't over, but bipartisan support for research is returning. We need to communicate effectively with our patrons about the relevance of research to the average citizen."

M.R.C. Greenwood, chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, recounted how the NDEA made it possible for her to go to graduate school and become a research biologist. "It's responsible for me being here today," she said.

We may be winning the battle but losing the war over research funding, Greenwood said, because Congressional staff "know nothing about science and some have negative attitudes toward science and research universities."

Greenwood, Gibbons and Marian Diamond, former director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, all called for better science education, from pre-school through university. "Everybody should know something about science," said Greenwood.

Nobelist Charles Townes stressed the need for multiple sources of support for research and warned against researchers getting too cozy with private industry. "Competing groups make for more flexibility," he said, "but the federal government should be our insurance policy."

Public health dean Ed Penhoet called for more multidisciplinary research and teamwork and disagreed strongly with the Tillman report, which says the U.S. has a glut of PhDs in certain fields. Instead he suggested that graduate students be educated about career opportunities outside of academia.

Presented by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, the conference was cosponsored by the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Office for History of Science and Technology, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, and the UC Office of the President.

The conference website is


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