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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lee DuBridge

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Interview with Dr. Lee Dubridge
By Walter Sullivan

December 13, 1968

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Lee Dubridge; December 13, 1968

ABSTRACT: Chairman of the Presidentís Science Advisory Committee Science-government relationship, funding of basic research influenced by politics, development of basic research since World War II in physics, astronomy, medicine, geology, environment (Greenhouse Effect), agricultural, difference between funding procedures of Federal government and National Science Foundation Extensive discussion of space exploration program DuBridgeís role and goals during his second term as PSAC chairman (first term was under President Eisenhower, 1952-1957), discussion of a science cabinet post (as opposed to a science advisor) Functions of PSAC, danger of development of a military industrial complex Role of Office of Naval Research in basic research after World War II Comments on ďvested interests,Ē military and technological enterprises in industry, growing dependence of universities on government money Social implications of scientific and technological advances.

Transcript

Sullivan:

Would you start out by identifying for us, if you could, some of the areas you think are most critical as far as science is concerned in its relationship to Government?

DuBridge:

Let me say first that as one looks at our Government now, one must he impressed, a scientist must be impressed, with the extensive activities in many departments and agencies all through the Government that are related to scientific research or the use of science in applied areas. There are also some agencies that not made much use of science and technology, I believe they beginning to appreciate the fact that there are opportunities for using technology for what it is for, namely, to improve the quality of life in many areas. People say sometimes ďShouldnít all the scientific activities of the government be consolidated into a single office or department?Ē And somebody has said this would he like creating a department of typewriters. A lot of people in government use typewriters, so why not have a Secretary of typing. Since science and engineering are tools for accomplishing missions for many agencies, to say that one agency should do it all, I think, would spoil the impact of science and technology in so many areas where it is and can be important. I am not saying that the present organization in government for carrying out research and development is the final one, but I think the problem of our government is to spread the point of view, the activities, and the methods of using science and technology more widely through government rather than bringing it into a centralized area. The broad problem, then, is not shall the government support and use science and technology, but how shall it do it. What are the priorities among the various areas in science and technology, where is more funding is needed or when can less funding be adequate, and which new areas need to be promoted more actively, which ones have reached a stage where activities can be leveled off, or even tapered off... you can only push through on important developments in areas where the necessary scientific and technological knowledge is present. One could initiate a big and new development of an atomic weapon only when one knew there was such a thing as atomic energy releasable on a practical scale, and this didnít happen until about 1940.

Sullivan:

Doesnít this quickly come down to a matter of priorities in an expenditure of funds?

DuBridge:

It does, but in considering those priorities, as I was saying, you have to consider two sides, the social importance, the importance to the country, and the scientific knowledge that makes a particular line of development possible.

Sullivan:

Arenít you introducing a new criterion here with your emphasis on the social value of science? I have the impression that up until now, at least on the scientific side, the criterion has been knowledge, itself, rather than the social benefits of the research?

DuBridge:

I guess I have been talking in the last few moments about applied science, about the use of science. Fundamental to the use of science for any purpose, you must have the knowledge, and this is achieved through basic research, which isnít initially aimed at specific, practical applications of any sort. Therefore, one must have in any modern society a very important and extensive free basic research enterprise establishment, largely in universities, so that new areas of knowledge will be explored. It is impossible to foresee which of them will have important practical applications. Mr. Nixon in some of his statements has indicated an interest in making sure of our national strength in basic science, and that it continues to increase, because this is the basis for future developments of specific social importance.

Sullivan:

Arenít we in trouble right now because of cutbacks? At California Tech. donít we have problems — a 20 percent cutback or something like that?

DuBridge:

In the National Science Foundationís contribution it is more than 20 percent for the institute as a whole; the federal cut may be more like 10 percent.

Sullivan:

Right.

DuBridge:

We are talking, however, about a 10 percent cut instead of what should have been a 10 percent increase. We are not talking about doubling overnight. It is like the general university problem. Any major university engaged in graduate study and the training of scholars in whatever field — science, social science and so forth — is faced with rising costs that are built into our system as it exists today. These have to do with the rising level of salaries for scholars and Scientists, rising enrollments in our universities and the need for giving more attention to graduate study (which is expensive, compared to undergraduate work) the general inflationary trends in the country; the costs of materials and supplies and equipment, and finally, the rising cost of research, itself. Therefore, if the basic research budget of this country were right last year, it would not be right this year or next year unless there was built into it something like a 10 percent a year increase. Now, obviously, a 10 percent increase canít go on for a hundred years, or it would exceed the total Federal budget. But in the next few years, at least something on the order of 10 percent, maybe it is 12 or 9 percent, is a built-in increase factor in the State and private university budgets and the government must recognize this. What must be done in expenditures for basic research is, I think, to follow the judgment of the scientific community. If you find bright scientists who are gung ho toward investigating this problem, you can ha pretty sure that this problem has important significance in the structure of scientific knowledge, and that the techniques for investigating it fully are now present, and the urge and motivation for investigating it are present, and when that is true I think one should try to find support for these bright people.

DuBridge:

Again, the important areas are guided by the areas in which the brightest scientific minds are at work. A few years ago it became very evident that the background knowledge and techniques.

Sullivan:

From where you have sat, is there a scientific equivalent of the economic debate about the extent the Government should direct all this, and to what extent it must allow spontaneous ferment to continue?

DuBridge:

Again, we are talking about incommensurables. When it comes to applied science — using our scientific knowledge to attain a particular goal which is important for the Government, in defense, atomic energy, space, agriculture, standards, whatever — there, the Government can, and somebody must, direct, must set the goals — economic goals possibly, technological goals. Applied science has to he directed, because it is aimed toward something, and somebody must say what it is aimed toward, and what the funding can possibly be. If you want to build a supersonic transport, you have to ask three questions: Is it technically feasible? Is it important to our national life for some reason or other? And what economic importance does it have to justify the expenditure? But basic science, if the Government is supporting an investigation in a university into DNA, the Government doesnít direct that. The Government only responds to the request of the investigator and his university that certain funds are needed.

Sullivan:

Do you and leading members of the scientific community think that the space program has been worth the money it has cost us?

DuBridge:

I think one has to go back into human aspirations. Human beings have dreamed about escaping from the earth now for at least 2,000 years or more. Therefore, when it became technologically feasible to launch instruments into space beyond the earth, this, in a sense, was a fulfillment of a long-time aspiration of mankind. The astonishing discoveries that were immediately made justified further exploration from the pure scientific point of view. Then, of course, it became evident that once you went around the earth, the additional energy necessary to take an instrument to the moon was not too great. The same thing is true when we were able to send instruments to the vicinity of Venus and Mars, and to pull aside the curtains of mystery which have shrouded those planets. All of this has opened up new fields, and as a scientist, one canít help but be excited. And one does find that there are kinds of observations and information that we donít know how instruments alone can get, and, therefore, man enters the picture as another piece of the instrumentation that is needed for the exploration. When man entered the picture, the first effect is that the costs get large, because you must transport not only man but the food and other survival facilities, and you must also make provision for him to return safely. This of course, greatly increases the cost. Therefore, the Apollo landing of a man on the moon is a vastly more expensive enterprise than the Surveyor landing on the moon. By the same token, the information returned will be much greater, too. However, as the technology of the spacecraft improves, and our instruments need to get more complex, heavier, or longer lasting, there may very well be a time when putting a man up will actually be cheaper than trying to use automated instruments. Automated instruments have to be flexible, and you have to be able to program them and change their programs and tell them to do new things, when for example, they have discovered things that you didnít anticipate. In this case, a man will become extremely valuable. There are many people that visualize that in the next 20 or 30 years we might have quite a few people on the moon — a quasi-permanent base, with an exchange of people back and forth. You could maintain a base for astronomical observation or to examine the materials of moon, to see if any are valuable for us to bring back, and to determine whether a permanent life support system could be built on the moon; the latter is not easy, but one cannot say it is impossible. Therefore, when we look 20 or 30 or 50 years ahead in space exploration we must ask ďWhat are the things we ought to learn first, and how can this progress to further knowledge?Ē What this means in terms of cost, I am not prepared to say. You canít conduct a large space program without substantial expenditures of money. How much money you decide to spend will depend, first, on the intrinsic costs of doing anything; second, on the scientific value of what you do; and third, on the technological value of investigating new materials and processes, and of course on the attitude of the country and government as to what all this is worth from the point of view of international prestige and national moral.

Sullivan:

Is there another factor here in terms of military potentiality?

DuBridge:

Yes, I should include that. I think President Johnson said just the other day that some of the military satellites have been of sufficient value to pay for the whole space program. I donít know what he was referring to. Again, this was a judgment about dollar value, but nevertheless it is judgment of somebody who knows what is going on. The military satellites have great importance in terms of surveillance, weather prediction communication, all the other things with which the military are concerned.

Sullivan:

Dr. DuBridge, how would you assess the arms race and the chance of achieving arms control with the Soviets —

DuBridge:

That is two questions. On what agreements can be achieved, I am not well enough informed to answer. I have not been in touch with the negotiations and the proposals and counter-proposals that have been talked about. What I think everybody certainly subscribes to as terribly important is to find a way of limiting the nuclear arms race, stopping it eventually, and certainly limiting it, because otherwise, it may get completely out of hand. If it is a contest in which we have 1,000 hydrogen warheads and the Russians have 900, is that good or bad; or should we have 1,500 to their 900? Or are they going to get 1,500 and we only have 1,000? It is an impossible race to see the end of, or to see the validity of, and it is terribly important to find a way of getting out of the rat race of nuclear build-ups, and nuclear defense build-ups; I think everybody would say this must be one of the important goals of this country — to try to find ways of influencing other countries to support a nuclear limitation.

Sullivan:

Do you see a modification or revitalization of the role of PSAC (the Presidentís Science Advisory Committee)?

DuBridge:

I would like to enhance the contacts between PSAC and the entire scientific community, by somehow getting more scientists involved, not necessarily by enlarging PSAC itself, but enlarging its contacts with the National Academy of Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering and others, so that we are tapping a larger opinion sample. You canít of course take a vote of the whole scientific community on the technical potentialities of an anti-ballistic missile system. But even here I would like to get a broader scientific and engineering opinion available to the President, rather than just my opinion, or just the opinions of the 16 people who now constitute PSAC.

Sullivan:

What do you regard the role of the Science Advisor to be?

DuBridge:

Well, I think the first important thing is to study what the job is, and whether it is manageable under the present conditions, or whether a better set-up would be visualized and implemented. So, I will start with where the office is now, and take a look at what is now being done and being attempted, and then see whether, from my way of working, the present structure is adequate to the tasks which are now ahead, or to the new tasks which Mr. Nixon will ask us to undertake. I do not want to express any fixed opinions on the structure of the Science Advisorís Office, or of its possible relations to some future development of a cabinet position. Such as officer should not be a ďczarĒ for all government science — I think that is bad. You canít have a czar who runs science for the Department of Defense. That must be for the Defense Department to do; similarly for other agencies. An operating science officer would be a major change from a non-operating advisor who is charged by the President with giving him the best advice from the scientific community, and who is charged by Congress (which set up the Office of Science and Technology) with coordinating the scientific research and development of the government. It would be a very different thing if my office were an operating agency which operated laboratories, for even if you had an operating agency, you might still need a Presidential Science Advisor, because the head of that agency has to fight for the agency, and he no longer can become a neutral observer and a neutral advisor.

Sullivan:

When President Eisenhower left office, he made a famous remark warning about the military-industrial complex, and I wondered if you saw any danger of the development of a military-scientific complex that had a great stake in constantly expanding weapons program?

DuBridge:

Well, let me first answer by saying that I am a little bit more concerned right now about a breach between the military parts of our government, such as the Department of Defense, and the scientific community. One can understand some of the reasons for this opening breach, because of the division of opinion on the Vietnam War. But for the good of the country, I think the defense of the nation requires active scientific and technological investigation and development. Hence, in one way or another, the university community should assist the Department of Defense. A university must do this in ways that are consonant with the university atmosphere, with the educational objectives of the university itself. A university, being a teaching institution, cannot easily have closed laboratories with ďSecretĒ signs on them. What a university does is open, and is a part of the instruction process. Therefore, at Cal Tech we have for 20 years, not just since the Vietnam War, avoided secret military work on the campus because we do not think it is consonant with our educational objectives. Many universities have the same policy. That does not mean, however, that many of our faculty members have not participated in various Defense Department advisory committees and special projects. We even undertook an off-campus special project many years ago at the request of the Defense Department. I think a friendly cooperation between the Defense Department and the scientific community is desirable for, the long-term welfare of the country. There has been a misunderstanding on some campuses about the nature of the scientific work which is supported by the Department of Defense in universities. The present-day students do not recall the days immediately following World War II when the entire country, and particularly the military establishment, having seen the extraordinary value of the scientific and engineering contributions to World War II, recognized that the maintenance of a strong base of university science in this country was of very great importance to the future of the country, for both peacetime and military purposes. There was no mechanism in the Government at that time for the support of basic university research. The Navy stepped in and, through its Office of Naval Research, said, ďWe will be the supporter of basic university research — non-classified, no-weapons research. In the last two years, because of budgetary restrictions, the range of scientific activities being supported by the Office of Naval Research has been reduced. Some of its projects have been passed over to the National Science Foundation. But the point I am trying to make is that there is a misunderstanding on some campuses about the relationship of such agencies as the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Air Research with the university community. Those offices are supporting basic research, non-classified, disconnected from the immediate, foreseeable weapon and military applications. They are supporting it because they think contact with the scientific community is valuable, that the strengthening of the university and our scientific enterprise is valuable —

Sullivan:

You hear from time to time of various task forces appointed to deal with a scientific problem of some kind — to examine its social implications.

DuBridge:

I think this is inevitable and we should get mixed teams examining such things. Letís take the urban problem. Experts in transportation, communication, housing, and pollution, as well as in human relations and social psychology, should be brought together to study this whole package of urban problems.

Sullivan:

You have been terribly nice, and we are deeply appreciative of your giving us this opportunity.

DuBridge:

Thank you very much, and let me repeat again that what I advise the President in March might not have any obvious relation to the things we are saying today. I give you my attitudes only. My opinions are not yet congealed as to what specific steps the government must take now in these various areas. I donít know enough, and I havenít studied many of these specific problems we have discussed.