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Science Policy: The Parable of the King and the Harvest

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-60
Keywords: science policy Presidential Science Advisor parable seed grain
Published in the August-1993 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 1/12/93 and is copyrighted ©1993 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.


    I'm an experimental physicist. The basic physics research I do is funded primarily by the U. S. Government. As I write this, it is less than two weeks before the 1993 Presidential Inauguration. The new Clinton Administration is still of an unknown quantity. A new Presidential Science Advisor with excellent qualifications, Dr. John H. Gibbons, has just been appointed, but little is know about the science policies of the new administration.

    In the U. S., almost all basic research in science is funded by agencies of the federal government, particularly the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The previous experience of scientists with the start-up science policies of incoming administrations, unfortunately, has been largely bad. The Johnson Administration started by raiding science budgets and canceled many new science and space projects to pay for the Great Society. The Nixon Administration never even bothered to appoint a Presidential Science Advisor. The Carter Administration diverted massive funds within the DOE from basic science to initiatives for "politically correct" energy sources, unofficially known within the DOE as "sunbeams and windmills". The Reagan Administration initially killed all science education funding at the NSF because, it was claimed, the NSF education program in anthropology was promoting "cultural relativism". The Bush Administration's Secretary of Energy, a retired Admiral, effectively shut down basic research at all of the US National Laboratories for 6 months or more while "tiger teams" of retired military officers and others prowled them for possible safety hazards, demanding vast mountains of new paper work from the unhappy scientists.

    What is next? A dangerous new "fashion" in science policy has been in vogue in Washington for the past few months in certain Congressional Committees and in the upper management of the National Science Foundation. It is to turn away from basic research and fund technology transfer and "relevant science", i.e., scientific research that is said to be directly connected to technological progress and industrial applications, that might be useful in developing new products for industry.

    This simplistic policy is very much like Exxon deciding to drill only producing oil wells, or a book publisher deciding to publish only best sellers. A recent NSF advisory group composed of executives from technology-based industries recommended, to the dismay of NSF leadership, that the NSF should not pursue such a plan. The best vehicle for technology transfer, the panel members asserted, was "the moving van that transports the new PhD from his university laboratory to his new job in industry". It remains to be seen whether their advice will be heeded.

    This brings me to what I wanted to present here: a way of thinking about the problem of science funding. It is in the form of a parable, a story about the king of a city-state in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC, a time when life was simpler and harsher and what we call civilization was just getting its start.

    During the first year of his rein the Great King Zaggisi, new ruler of the city-state of Ur in the fertile crescent formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was presented with the problem of how to allocate the grain from the previous year's harvest.

    Fortunately, Zaggisi had a Gift. He had received it as a young man, well before his ascension to the throne of Ur, probably from a God. He had been fighting for his life in a mighty battle with warriors from the neighboring city of Nippur. He was wielding his bronze sword from his chariot, riding close to his father, the King. A lowly slinger, a peasant foot soldier of the enemy, had hit him in the temple with a stone, and he had fallen into unconsciousness.

    He had awakened a time later, lying on the ground in the mud and blood among the dead. As he stood, sick and dizzy, he discovered his Gift for the first time. He found that as he looked around, he could see not only the battle that still raged on around him, but its future courses and its possible outcomes. Glowing swaths marked paths along which the battle might progress and highlighted places at which it might ultimately reach its climax.

    Young Zaggisi moved across the battlefield to a hilltop, the place from which he saw that the battle could be won. There he stood and shouted the battle cry of his royal house. Foot soldiers collected around him. His Father and the royal charioteers joined them. From this high ground, the royal forces of Ur gathered and focused, they punched forward and downward, dividing and routing the enemy. In an hour, few of the enemy were left alive.

    Zaggisi, not the oldest of the many royal princes, had from that day had been his father's designated heir. He had never told anyone about the Gift, the extrapolative sense that allowed him to peer into the future, to see the consequences of any act. Now he gathered around him his Council of Advisors, the wise of the city who traditionally advised the High King on his most weighty decisions. Today he needed to decide the allocation of the bounty from year's harvest, the plan by which essentially all of the portable wealth of Ur must be distributed by his new administration.

    The head priest and leader of the Council of Advisors came before him first. "Great King, the old priest said, "it is the advice of the priestly class that you use all of the year's grain to erect a great temple to the great god Enlil, who has given us this bounty."

    Zaggisi concentrated, his Gift showing him the consequences of this course of action. A temple of great beauty would rise, and for a time the large expenditure on public works would create prosperity in the city. But at the end of this shining path was a black cloud. There would be a crop failure, the starving poor would riot, and they would be joined by dissatisfied soldiers. In the far future travelers would find the great building in a wasteland and would marvel that any king would choose to build a great temple in such a desolate place.

    The priest was followed by the leader of the military, who advised the king to use most of the year's grain to hire artisans to construct new weapons and additional mercenaries to use them. He promised that the conquests of neighboring city-states would generate rich plunder that would more than compensate for the expense.

    Zaggisi saw the consequences. There was a fork in this path, with one narrow branch leading to conquest and riches as the man had promised, but the other, wider path led to defeat, starvation, death, and chaos.

    The third advisor was considered a saint among the populace of the city. He had been born into a wealthy family, but have given up all his wealth to feed the poor and to help the sick. He advised the king to use the previous year's harvest to feed the poor, to care for the sick, and to provide adequate housing for all. Zaggisi examined the consequences of such generosity. It was a disaster. At first the poor were better off, but in the course of two years the crops would fail, the city would fall, and the majority of the present poor would be dead or enslaved.

    The stream of advisors continued. Zaggisi was advised by the leader of the construction guild to build more roads and highways. His Gift showed him that transport was important to his city, but not of the highest priority. He was advised by the most cautious and miserly of his citizens to hoard all of the year's crop in that great city storehouse against the possibility of hard times to come. The King saw that the principal consequence of this would be to provide a great feast for the rats that infested the storehouse .

    The next advisor was Zaggisi's keeper of records, a man known for his devious cleverness. "Master," he said, "I have a wonderful idea. We will sort the kernels of grain into those which are of the best quality, and those of lower quality. The high quality kernels we will use for seed, while the lower quality we will distribute equally among the uses that your other advisors have advocated."

    The King used his Gift to consider this advice. It showed him that the external appearance of a kernel of grain was not a predictor of its likelihood of success as a seed for next year's crop. The plan would result in a massive human effort, accompanied by much pilferage by the large army of grain inspectors, with no positive result in the improvement in crop quality.

    The last advisor was the King's agricultural minister, an old farmer and an longtime friend of the King and his father before him. "My son," he said, "all of these worthy men have found excellent uses for the bounty that the Earth has provided, but none have given a thought to returning to the Earth a share of what it has provided. Your highest priority should be to invest in the future by providing enough seed grain to match that which seeded this year's harvest, plus an additional increment to increase the size of the harvest. When this is done, you must use your judgment to determine which of the other worthy causes require investment in what amounts."

    Zaggisi explored this advice carefully, and found it to be excellent. Grain has many uses. It can be used to feed the poor and gain popularity. It can be used to hire mercenary soldiers and expand the military power of the city. It can be used to hire artisans to construct new civic buildings and decorate them with great works of art. It can be used to hire workers to improve the streets and highways of the city. It can be kept in the great storehouse of the city to increase the city's wealth. But above all, a sufficient quantity must be returned to the farmers as seed-grain for the planting of next year's crops, or the city will fall.

    That's the parable. In considering its implications, you might carefully examine the origins of many technological marvels that shape our lives, VCR's and smoke detectors, MRI scans and home computers, microwave ovens and communications satellites, antibiotics and jet airliners. None of these depend on some single breakthrough discovery. All are possible because of an accumulation of knowledge and discoveries from a broad range of disciplines.

    Consider, for example, the smoke detector. It depends on previous scientific investigations in nuclear physics for the discovery of the transuranic element Americium used to ionize air in the device, on work in condensed matter physics for the discovery of semiconductors and transistors of the integrated electronics it uses, on work in gas dynamics that brought understanding of the transport of electrically charged smoke particles in a non-uniform electric field, and so on. The scientists who made these discoveries were doing their work for a variety of reasons, but I think it is safe to say that none of them had in mind the development of a smoke detector or were motivated by considering the lives that such a device might save. Few would have even been able to predict that their work would have important consequences. Most were simply trying to gain better understanding of some aspect of the physical universe. And yet, the cumulative result of these diverse scientific efforts has resulted in a common device that over the years has saved a great many lives.

    The seeds of scientific investigation flourish in ways that are not possible to predict, except in very general ways. No one is able to anticipate that a particular investigation will lead to a particular result. And yet, we can assert with confidence that the overall enterprise of science will lead to new knowledge and understanding, will provide the basis for new technologies that we cannot even imagine.

    We must invest in basic research on a broad front to insure that each "crop" of new knowledge brings its bounty in new technologies and innovations. Our seed grain must be protected and used to insure the bounty of future harvests.

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This page was created by John G. Cramer on 7/12/96.