From elite Prometheanism to free research

“Our time and energy are being sapped by bureaucrats and politicians. The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students.”
– Dr. Roy Schwitters, Head of the Superconducting Supercollider Project, in 1993.

“The open science movement is gaining momentum…But the Neuro is bringing open science to a new level by making a commitment to share everything from brain imaging to tissue samples to the data associated with its experiments.”
– McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier, McGill News, Winter 2016/17.

The early 1990s may now be recalled mainly for large political developments. In Canada, they were the climactic years of a decade of constitutional conflict, ending in negative outcomes of two referendums; in the U.S., the victory of Bill Clinton. But two other events would cast long shadows over the quarter century that followed. One was the large popular vote won in the 1992 presidential election by the unconventional third-party candidate, Ross Perot, a major factor in denying George H. W. Bush a second term. It was an early portent of the growing current of cultural and economic nationalism that has now culminated in the victory of Donald Trump, with signs of a similar direction arriving in Europe. The other, less-recalled but highly significant in its own way, was the 1993 cancellation by the U.S. Congress of the funding necessary to complete the building of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project in Waxahachie, Texas.

The SSC was spearheaded by the Harvard physicist Roy Schwitters, co-winner of a 1976 Nobel Prize, experienced both in past large projects and lobbying in Washington. His 1,900 scientists and construction workers were building the SSC to learn more about the fundamental properties of matter, with what would have been the largest and most expensive scientific apparatus ever built. Everything about it was gargantuan. It required an elliptical tunnel 150 feet underground, 54 miles in circumference, and fitting together more than 10,000 large superconducting magnets, cooled to less than -200 degrees C by a river of liquified helium. Completion would have taken until at least 1999, at a cost of above $8 billion. The scientists had been working around the clock, almost as driven by deep conviction as the atomic physicists of the Manhattan Project. They hoped for world-changing discoveries, which might have made Schwitters as famous as Robert Oppenheimer. Instead, like Canada’s Avro Arrow, the SSC ended in heroic failure. More, it became the symbol of a worldwide retreat from decades of unbounded “Prometheanism” in natural science, changing the understanding of science in general.

It was not just that Congress had quailed at the sheer cost of a project increasingly seen as only serving the curiosity and professional interest of a tiny group of researchers. A whole era was ending. The Second World War had replaced the kind of individual achievements of theorists and experimenters like Einstein and Rutherford with large teams of scientists using more and more elaborate and powerful equipment, and the military demands of the Cold War had continued this expansion, above all in the paradigmatic science of physics. But even in the space race years of the 1960s, it was coming to be realized that this marriage between Baconian practical demands and “pure research” could not keep growing forever. The science historian Derek daSolla Price, quantifying the overall growth of “Big Science,” had shown that the previous exponential expansion of the profession had to level off sharply, since extrapolation of the trend line for only a couple more decades would predict that American scientists alone would outnumber the entire American population

Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, using frequency-of-article citations to analyze the impact of specific researchers, embarrassingly demonstrated the high level of chaff compared to wheat: nearly all the work ever used was still being done by a small elite, roughly a tenth of the overall community. This was a grim comment on modern university scholarship of all kinds, since professorial credentials are based on “research,” since the late 19th century even in the traditional humanities, drawing on the model of work in the natural sciences.

Not only did the end of the Cold War bring these uncomfortable observations to light, the very epistemological foundations of physics and chemistry had been shaken since the first three decades of the 20th century by a growing series of paradoxical discoveries and theoretical explanations, especially that matter on the tiniest scale had to be studied statistically, requiring more and more acceptance of entities and behaviours completely at odds with rationalist materialism and determinism, even of cause and effect, to the despair of Einstein. Furthermore, while physicists have been continuing to make discoveries, now augmented with observational data from remote space and the application of increasing computer power to all problems, there have been none for decades with the same immediate mass impact as the greatest ones made in the first half of the 20th century, with their stunning and terrifying climax in nuclear weapons.

This Faustian tale has been undermining the attractiveness of physics for generations of students now, and combined with the feminization of the university campus, has also led to a greatly increased attraction of “life sciences.” That has also brought a great deal more than a change in enrolments. The study of physics has tended to extreme concentration of the subject matter for study. It took a great deal of outside financial support and hiring committee adventurousness, for example, to move the famous all-physics Cavendish Laboratory of Maxwell to Rutherford, to the molecular biology of Bragg, Watson, and Crick. As well, biology expands in diversity rather than concentration, ranging from laboratory genetics to observation of animals in the wild.

Furthermore, physics and chemistry maintained an “aristocratic” style, whatever the social origins of its practitioners, and empirical, “apolitical” execution, even if a few individual physicists were Marxists, liberals, or conservatives outside their labs. Biological studies have not been like that at all, mostly drawing students already indoctrinated in environmentalism, reliably progressive, and consciously or unconsciously subscribing to “scientism” as a post-Judeo-Christian creed, often filled with accusatory zeal about the capitalist causes of climate change.

This change has gone along with proliferating conflicts and difficulties in the academic organization of science in academia. Achievement, once rewarded mainly with elite status, is now seen, in American entrepreneurial style, as having potentialities for making big money for researchers, universities, businesses, or all three. Priority quarrels, multiple duplications, bare-knuckle competition, increased instances of outright fraud, and squads of arriving lawyers have all now been part of the scene in science for several decades.

It is therefore not surprising that many scientists and institutions now hope to revivify their enterprises by returning to the “open” co-operative research model idealized from the 17th century to the first decades of the 20th. As Principal Fortier clearly realizes, it is a large gamble, with a possible large payoff. Still, the 1990s saw not only the end of elite Prometheanism, but the revival of nationalist protectionism. In Trump’s world, open science may have unwelcome implications for “America First” commercial exploitation. McGill may find itself playing Ariel to this new Caliban, for once giving student politicians something of importance to argue about.

Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and Discourse Online contributor. This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald.