Science and the Money-Minded
SOME young men are very fortunate. Even some research workers are very fortunate when they are young. I know one who had a rather remarkable fellowship at a large university. For three years he drew a salary of three thousand dollars annually, including the privilege of working in one of the best-equipped chemical laboratories in the United States, simply to potter around with ephedrine — which I may identify for laymen by saying that it seems a drug destined eventually in part to replace adrenalin or epinephrin. The young man could do about what he wanted to do; he was an organic chemist and he had a perfectly ravishing time during the three years — which was unfortunate for reasons that we shall investigate later. His three thousand dollars came from one of the largest and, scientifically, one of the most advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing concerns in this country.
During the three years he was occasionally visited by administrative and technical men employed by the company. They came not to direct him, for they could not do that. He knew more about organic chemistry than the entire company put together and laid lengthwise. They came to question him and to pick up scraps. They picked up, during the three years, scraps valued commercially at $150,000. In other words, this young man, upon whose time the company expended a total of $9000 (for the university gladly gave
him laboratory space and working materials, merely to share the glory of his achievements), found out, quite accidentally, more economically valuable things about ephedrine than all the high-salaried executives of the pharmaceutical company ever found out about anything in their lives. In short, the natural drive of the curiosity of a young man with a talent for organic chemistry brought in a profit of $141,000 to an enterprising group of Babbitts (if we may call them that, with no desire to be derogatory) who happened, by pure chance, to set him the problem. At the end of three years the company had enough information; in short, the law of diminishing returns had begun to apply, the research had become too remotely fundamental to be immediately profitable and the fellowship ended.
Fortunately, just at that moment certain social scientists who had been studying the narcotic problem decided to drop it. In five years, and after considerable expenditure of money supplied by a rich foundation, they had decided that they did not know how to solve the problem and that a more fundamental science had better be called in. A chemist was needed, and the young man got a new fellowship at the old salary, and he now applies his phenomenal genius, for it is no less, to the problem of discovering narcoticlike substances which will have the same benign qualities as morphine and cocaine, but will lack all of their harmful elements — a very fundamental way to solve a hard social problem.
Should he solve this problem after a further expenditure of $9000, the results would be too tremendous to calculate in economic terms and he would stand ready to accept another $3000 fellowship. Finally, he could honestly and sincerely declare that he had spent six happy years in the laboratory actually getting paid for doing what he most wanted to do anyway.
What have we found out? That some men make fabulous sums of money by the amicable exploitation of other men with better brains, who are so seduced by the idea of being paid a moderate salary for doing exactly what they want to do that the injustice of the situation, if it inheres at all, does not occur to them.
We have also discovered the manner in which knowledge comes into being, and that contributing to the growth and the enhancement of fundamental knowledge is not an activity which has high economic value in our civilization.
Now how could such a man make money if he wished? I can best answer that by the story of a very prominent engineer which was told me yesterday. This man graduated from a university as an engineer and he worked at this profession to some extent. But there came a time when he had the opportunity to help buy some patents and form a company. As an engineer he had been a productive worker adding to the sum total of human knowledge, but he was not well paid. Now he and certain more wealthy men discovered two other men who had devised a method by which ore of a certain type, which had for years been discarded as unprofitable, could be reworked at an enormous profit. He himself happened to know that a large group of abandoned mines supplying this ore existed in a distant country; the other more wealthy men did not know this; the two men who devised the method would not have thought of trying to find out such a thing anyway.
Therefore the engineer and the wealthy men formed a company in which even the inventors of the process wore given moderate amounts of stock, for these wealthy men were softhearted. The engineer, however, having in mind the distant mines, desired no stock; he asked only the right to use the process. That is about the end of the story. The engineer bought the poor mines and used the process; the wealthy men got a little wealthier; the inventors got much less than the others, but they had enjoyed what they did and probably thought they were overpaid; and the engineer got very rich — no discredit to him. For he and every other member of the group simply did what people do in this civilization of ours in accordance with the social and economic rules by which we contrive so strikingly to misdirect this civilization for the benefit of the few and the degradation of the many. It works for the benefit of men who have the astuteness to know the location of abandoned mines, and to form companies for the friendly exploitation of a small minority of other men who have brains so remarkable that the mere using of them gives a pleasure that money cannot enhance.
Meantime there are voices calling in the wilderness and saying that the research man does not get his just reward. Is this altogether true? It is quite generally admitted that our present civilization rests upon the brains of men of science. It is also admitted that scientists lack power. Finally it is true that, in a democracy, a determined and vociferous minority can, if they set themselves to the task, do about whatever they desire to do. Must research men therefore remain inadequately rewarded?
Again, the scientist gets as the major portion of his reward the same thing the writer and the painter get — that gloriously and deliriously joyous feeling which pervades a man of more than average mental gifts when the machinery is running at high speed. The article produced may or may not sell at a high price. That is secondary. Give such a man a bare living, and the mere joy of feeling the wheels turn will render him so happy that he can conscientiously regard as his benefactors the astute men of very narrowly limited talent who exploit him in the most friendly way imaginable — so long as his incidental by-products have a high market value. He possesses that which could remake civilization; however, the civilization which exists is not only so regulated as to reduce his monetary reward to a minimum, but its very agencies and powers penalize him at every step and tend to restrict or to inhibit the increase and the application of his knowledge.
I know what this means. I have myself been on friendly terms with a man who was enabled to make $50,000 a year in great part by reason of the fact that four men at $2500 a year, of whom I was one, supplied the essential knowledge which enabled the firm of which he was president to pay 19 per cent annual dividends on its mildly watered stock. When I say I was friendly I mean it, and I believe he was sincerely friendly with me. We four enjoyed having our wheels go round; he looked upon us as slightly insane persons whose rather ridiculous gyrations, none the less, happened to produce valuable by-products which he could sell. To say that he was exploiting me would be to talk nonsense; to say that I felt exploited would be equally nonsensical.
That was twelve years ago, and I was well paid and knew it. He was conscious of my value to the company, and that was why he not only paid me well but offered me both his church pew and his seats at the symphony orchestra concerts. (I took the latter gladly!) We were both parts of a great system which had arisen and enabled him to profit from my brains (he admitted he had none of my type of brains, nor did he want any, for he was quite sure they would be both an annoyance and frightfully impractical), but we were honestly friendly, and when our ways parted this fundamental problem between us was ignored. I left largely because my vagrant curiosity led me into fields which were not economically profitable; we both agreed that this would never do in his industry, but I liked those problems, so I cheerfully took less salary to go elsewhere in a publicly supported research laboratory and let my wheels go round.
Now what is the position of the man who undertakes fundamental scientific research for a publicly supported institution? So far as he is a good investigator, he will want to do work which interests him and gives him pleasure. He will be permitted more leeway in state work than in industry. He will have a problem or project; he will be expected to gather facts, formulate conclusions, and these will be published for the direct or indirect benefit of the general public, depending upon the manner in which they are expressed, and whether further simplification is necessary. Yet, so far as he actually accomplishes what he would like to accomplish, either he himself or someone delegated to the task must present his work to laymen who have economic or political minds, whom we shall hereafter call money-minded men, whose sympathy must be aroused in order to permit the research and its publication to continue. That means time wasting; it means that research must be penalized; it means loss to the general public and a brake upon the advance of science, but this again is inherent in the very fundamental organization of our social and economic system — a system, let it be understoodadmirably adapted no doubt to certain conditions, but not adapted to the end of making knowledge, and the wealth created by knowledge, available to the greatest, possible number.
To be specific. A certain group of scientists wished, among other things, to publish a journal which would contain abstracts of work done in all branches of biology. They had to get $100,000 to do this and they had to get it from men who had no slightest idea what fundamental research in biology was all about, much less why it should be published and then republished in convenient abstract form. That fact came out in the first question put to the scientists by their lay benefactors: ‘How much do you spend on publishing your results for every one hundred dollars you spend on obtaining them?' No scientist ever thought about the thing that way, so none of them knew the answer. It was useless to stress the great value of having abstracts all over the field of biological research made quickly and regularly available to all research workers everywhere. Moneyminded benefactors wanted to know: How many dollars do you usually spend in printing results for each one hundred dollars you spend in obtaining them — that is, on laboratories, equipment, materials, and salaries?
The scientists investigated. The answer was: We normally spend one dollar to make public the amount of knowledge it costs us $3333 to procure, and, come to think of it, that is mighty little, is n’t it? Just who was at fault here is a pretty question — the moneyminded people for letting such a situation continue, or the scientists for refusing to think like money-minded men just long enough to present the problem to them in such a way that even they could understand it. At any rate it seemed to all of them rather ridiculous to spend only a dollar to disseminate information it took over three thousand dollars to procure, and the funds were made available.
The spectacle of a scientist attempting to defend fundamental research before a Congressional committee makes very interesting reading, and further illustrates what I have in mind. Yet neither of the parties to the spectacle should be blamed except so far as they are mutually responsible for a situation which manifestly should not continue to exist. The gap between their planes of thought should be bridged — or perhaps someone should bring along a ladder.
The scientist says, for instance, that we need money to investigate this beet disease. A member of the committee remarks that the scientist said the same thing last year and also five years ago, and that each time he got ten thousand dollars. The scientist says it is a long piece of fundamental research. Well, is it near an end? He cannot say. Has he ever ended up a piece of research in his life? In fact, is n’t it true that if he ever gets a project started it goes on forever? Well, new problems constantly arise to be subsumed under that project. Then, if he gets the money this time, what does he propose to do? He proposes to study the effect of certain kinds of light in speeding up the growth of beets. And what on earth has that to do with the beet disease? It has this to do with it: the disease advances rapidly; we must quickly develop a beet variety resistant to the disease in order to save a five-milliondollar industry in a certain section; the light will make beets mature and give seed in six months rather than in two years and thus speed up the hunt for a resistant variety. Then he launches into a discussion of light which rapidly becomes opaque to the committee. Finally the committee chairman says, ‘That sounds like the Ten Commandments — very fine, but too impractical. Now, what is the next item?’
But one day in a moment of enlightenment a money-minded man asked a scientist: ‘What value does research in your organization bring back per dollar spent?’ The scientist did n’t know, of course, for scientists habitually ignore such problems as that. But he decided to find out; he decided it might be convincing if he did find out; so he went through several cubic feet of documents and had trained statisticians make some calculations. He discovered that the return per dollar spent on research by the Department of Agriculture, for that happened to be the organization in this case, was five hundred dollars, or 50,000 per cent, which is not bad outside a public-service corporation, and is impressive even to a moneyminded man. It was impressive, and brought agricultural research an earned increment of long-delayed respect and appropriations. The incident also demonstrated that it pays, and does not necessarily demean the scientist, to think like a money-minded man occasionally, and thus accomplish by strategy that which he cannot accomplish by matter-of-fact statement.
There is in history the record of a certain research organization which did very fine work, but which habitually lacked funds to print its findings. Year by year facts accumulated in cold storage simply because certain laymen with money minds could not possibly see the importance of disseminating information which it had cost a great deal to procure. That is very natural. Most lay minds are industrialized, and, as I myself found, an industrial executive sometimes actually objects to the quotation, in a scientific article by one of his technicians, of the work of men who are long-since dead and whose publications are actually available to everyone in public libraries. Why? Because he fears the technician may give away some trade or factory secret. While he has spies in every factory similar to his own to send him full information regarding processes developed there, he is somehow insensible to the fact that his competitors have spies in his, and he guards with extreme care the information his men of brains collect. Naturally, when such men become the directors of altruistic scientific foundations, they cannot possibly see the necessity for large funds to make results available in print to everyone; that is not the way of business.
But it is the way of scientists. So, in the case we are describing, the scientists deliberately connived with certain journalists to attack their institute violently in the press as an organization supported by funds set aside for the public good which actually failed to function efficiently simply because it did not rapidly and widely publish its results. These attacks at once drew the attention of industrial men; these men immediately appealed to those in charge of the funds; funds were released for publication, and all was merry once more. But, given the crazy, chaotic social and economic system we now possess, the method taken by the scientists, though a Babbitt method, was the only practicable one.
This system of ours elaborately rewards the men who, by congenital chance, happen to have the kind of brains which enable them to win in a competitive game which requires an ability of a very narrowly limited character, but it does not commensurately reward the men of brains whose product alone makes the entire game possible and the entire fabric existent. This game tends to bore the artist, the man of literature, and the research investigator, in the same way that it would bore a highly trained engineer if he were compelled to play all day with a toy engine, or the average business executive if he were compelled to read only and exclusively the very best literature in the world.
It is not my intention to be supercilious. I speak from experience, as a personal instance will show. When the depression of 1920 (engineered by the great minds who direct our economic system) occurred, I was working as research chemist in a factory. For some reason best known to themselves, the money minds decided not to discharge me but to put me into a small department as production foreman. I had never been a foreman in my life, but I had to become one. I took hold, used common sense and the veriest rudiments of my scientific training, applied certainly not one tenth the mental power I had preciously applied to scientific research, and decreased the cost of production in my department by one half. More could easily have been accomplished, but I was called to other fields of endeavor.
Just how was this done? Well, I found that the average foreman or production manager would, when he received a formula from the scientific department, proceed to throw things together before he had read it completely. He would do as seemed right to him, and when the process failed, as it usually did, down the sewer the material went, and a new trial was started. These trials were all on a large scale and they cost money. I, instead, carefully read the formula before I started to make the product, studied it at each step of the process, and, if in grave doubt, tried out a small laboratory lot before I went ahead with a factory batch.
Again, orders came in for chemically pure sucrose. This is common sugar with a college education; it was then selling at about $1.40 a pound with common sugar at 11 cents. The factory manager, being jealous of the scientific departments, decided to make this sucrose himself without consulting research men. He did it by dissolving one hundred pounds of sugar at a time and later crystallizing it out by the use of alcohol. Each time he sent a sample to the analytical laboratory it came back rejected as making a cloudy solution and being more contaminated with dirt than the original sugar he started from. He had thus wasted about five hundred pounds of sugar, plus a great deal of labor, when I entered the factory, I controlled the crystallization with the greatest ease to keep dirt out of the product, and my first lot passed analysis. I next discovered that a certain sugar on the market was chemically pure anyway, so we crushed this, since it was a lump sugar, packaged it, and sold it directly!
These two things were in a way small triumphs to a commercial or money mind; to me they were too silly for words, but I had to make a living. Had I been a true scientist, of course, I would have starved rather than indulge in such antics — but that is my deficiency.
I said I was called to other fields of endeavor. That is not exactly true; I went to them when the president of the firm informed me that reduction of 50 per cent in costs of production did not really interest him enough to increase my salary, because selling price bore no set relation to cost of production anyway, except that the former was so much above the latter that 50 per cent, or even 100 per cent, savings were more or less immaterial.
Let us turn now to what can happen under present circumstances and consider a case or two, in order to show how disorganized our present sociopolitico-economic system really is.
Here is a man representing the beet industry. He says that if a singlegermed beet could be developed the industry would be saved an enormous amount. The ordinary beet seed sprouts four or five stalks; these have to be painfully thinned down to one (the longest and strongest) by hand. So two scientists set to work on the problem which, if solved, would make beet growing as easy as corn growing. They found about one single-germed seed in five hundred, so they started out by segregating a lot of singlegermed seeds. They planted these, and by keeping the line pure they soon had plants which would yield one half single-germed seeds; a little more selection would have solved the problem. Meantime there had been no publicity — and then something happened.
One of the investigators was offered a better position elsewhere and he took it. The second resigned rather than drop the problem, as a certain lay director requested, but he did not take it elsewhere. The beet man who originally suggested the problem died. The seeds were lost, $60,000 was wasted, and to-day the industry is about as far from the single-germed seed as ever. Had these scientists been alert to get their results published, — but many ‘pure’ scientists somehow often are not, — this waste would have been avoided. Publicity is a money-mind method, but it decidedly has its place in the scheme of things as they are.
As a matter of fact it is doubtful whether any scientific organization, even in the field of medicine, should entirely lack lay brains and advice. Absolute control by scientists is often disastrous. Perhaps this is because scientists themselves have inevitably become impregnated with the astute acquisitive ideas of money-minded men. In the matter of the beets, of course, publicity was woefully neglected; on the other hand, science itself needs sufficient organization to prevent the permanent sidetracking of important problems so near solution.
Quite recently the chemical director of an important research institute was offered a position as head of a university department. He went to take this new position, leaving, at the end of five years, a ten-year programme of fundamental research in physical chemistry. A great deal had been invested in this programme; the personnel had been very carefully built up, and important results were just beginning to be recorded. But the new chemical director was interested in an altogether different line of work, as he was an organic chemist; he found most of the old personnel and all the old equipment and apparatus useless. He built up a new personnel, put the expensive apparatus in the cellar, and started off on ideas of his own. His ideas were valuable and he was a genius, but science cannot consider itself organized in even a rudimentary way until such expensive disasters as this cease to occur.
A business man or two on the board might help. The National Academy of Sciences seems to find such assistance from money-minded men invaluable, while the biological institute at Woods Hole, controlling a large endowment, also has a business man Rotarian chairman of its board, the rest all being scientists. On the other hand too many money-minded men will simply wreck science altogether, just as their presence, their ownership, and their ideals have wrecked college and university education in this country. A very, very few of the very best money minds would be enough to put the needed organization into science. I say this because I remember the president of a company who, in my industrial days, came to me every so often to weep quietly about the hundred thousand dollars which, he assured me, went down the sewers of his concern annually. He was probably right. He felt impotent to stop this loss. He probably was. The wastage went on, but profits were so high that it hardly mattered. By this I mean that the returns on knowledge secreted by brains are so high that you can hobble, inhibit, confine, and abuse it, and yet make a great deal of money.
Consider soil as an instance. Soil is fundamental, more fundamental than good roads for pleasure vehicles. We need good roads, of course, to promote agriculture, which again is fundamental. But we do not need miles of roads laid out largely to accommodate endless processions of pleasure vehicles, driven by human automatons with vacuums in their heads, who have been so long debauched by the machine that they feel uncomfortable unless persisting in some meaningless mechanical activity. A soil survey is fundamental. The United States Bureau of Chemistry and Soils assures us that such a survey is one of the most valuable things economically imaginable and offers an enormous return on the investment. A detailed soil survey of an average county can be made for less than the cost of one quarter of a mile of state road, and yet so predominant is the money mind in America that it is easy to get the state road and very difficult indeed to get funds for the complete soil surveys we need.
Or, again, Bennett of the United States Bureau of Chemistry and Soils testified in 1929 before the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives (money-minded men in the majority — again no discredit to them, things being as they are) that 30,000,000 acres of farm land in the Piedmont Region from New York to Central Alabama had lost the top soil by erosion and that the farmers had to depend on the subsoil. When this washes away, that farm land will be barren and useless. Meantime it requires from four to eight hundred pounds of fertilizer per acre in lieu of a former two hundred pounds. In Fairfield County, South Carolina, 93,000 acres have been destroyed now, and Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and other states tell the same story. The soil often washes away at the rate of forty tons per acre per year. Yet this erosion could easily be prevented. The scientist wanted only $80,000 of government funds to spend on the project; he got $19,000. We spent $274,000,000 on cruisers and $57,000 on the prevention of soil erosion in the same three years. Even the most ardent advocate of cruisers should find this rather disproportionate, but it can easily be seen where money minds stand. The soil-erosion programme did somewhat better later, after a loud prearranged ‘ballyhoo’ to impress the money minds.
It is said that we spend approximately two hundred million dollars annually on research in this country. That is a large sum. It is large enough, in fact, to build about five airplane carriers. Our total income is eighty to ninety billion dollars a year. That means that we spend upon research $25 per $10,000 of annual income, which is not so much after all. Of that two hundred millions about twenty millions is devoted to fundamental research in pure science — that is, to the discovery of knowledge and the release of power upon which everything else in our civilization of to-day builds. That means that we spend only $2.50 per $10,000 of income on fundamental research; the remaining $22.50 goes to practical applications — that is, to such abstruse and difficult things as I told about when I mentioned the puresugar incident above. These figures are perhaps not exact, but they are relatively correct as given by Professor A. B. Wolfe.
What do they show? They show that the original source from whence all these magic machines of our modern civilization come to us receives comparatively little attention from the money minds. They show further that preaching to the people the value of research can only be effective when the statement is made in plain economic terms of profits and money value. But there is something deeper than that.
The control of the entire machinery of modern civilization remains in the hands of obsolete types of men who were naturally fitted to be leaders in another age. The popularization of science is a futile and largely impotent gesture so long as the fundamental basis of our social structure naturally gives all direction and power to money minds and practically no power, with scant reward, to productive brains. So long as this condition exists scientists must cry plaintively for funds, must pathetically cultivate moneyminded men in order to placate them into making very minor investments in brains.
Furthermore, science is penalized and crippled so long as the production of knowledge must be at the behest and under the direction of men who, however honest, sincere, and good at heart, have narrowly limited minds, entirely unable to think about abstract concepts. Hence it is very doubtful whether all the publicity campaigns undertaken by scientists can ever achieve what they want to achieve, so long as they direct their efforts at superficialities and ignore the root of the problem. To inveigh against the money minds is useless. They are what they are, without the slightest conscious desire to be what they have become. To wheedle funds out of such minds by pathetic beggary demeans the men of brains. For the latter to gain some of the power and control which are rightfully theirs can alone solve the problem.
Of course circumstances occasionally put even a scientist in a position of economic power. During 1917 there came to an industry in this country an English chemist at an annual salary of $25,000. Since we were at war with Germany, he was the only man in the world available who had the knowledge to do a specific thing a rich industrial concern wanted done. But such events are rare, and they are both accidental and incidental. Even when, in the same year, I went to industry as a research chemist at one tenth that salary, I got a stipend relatively so good, for a beginner, because I happened to know more about a certain narrowly limited sphere of organic chemistry than any other man available. When that knowledge had been utilized I became both less valuable and less important to my firm.
Implicit, if not explicit, in our entire ethic and philosophy is obeisance to the money mind. James Truslow Adams was perfectly correct when he declared that we educate people to do, not to be. The men of brains who dispense knowledge to youth do so under such circumstances that they erect in the students’ minds a wall. This wall surrounds the Temple of Money. Against it thought beats in vain, save for inconsiderable moments of beneficent generosity. Thus the men of brains who dispense knowledge erect the very barrier against which the fundamental scientists who discover knowledge have later to thrust themselves in order to get meagre funds for their work. The situation is absurd, but so long as it exists we must expect research to occupy the place in our scheme of things which it occupies at present. No amount of popularization of science can ever be really successful until that wall is demolished and men are respected for what they are rather than exclusively for what they do.
We have, then, this situation. The competitive economic system developed at a time when mechanization did not exist, and when success in the system required brains, initiative, and courage. The same qualities were also required at that time to make a good soldier. Science came; it produced knowledge and released power. Scientists enjoyed producing the knowledge and were relatively uninterested in the power released. The best brains gravitated to science as science made the system a thing of chance — depending upon unearned increments, open markets, preëmpted fields, opportune moments, banking and stock-market manipulations, and a certain simple acquisitiveness and astuteness uncomplicated by high mentality or impractical ideals and aspirations. At this time you could be a good soldier with a modicum of brains, initiative, and courage if you had a machine gun. In short, it became too easy to accumulate power and wealth, and mentally talented individuals naturally entered more difficult fields and drew their reward, as they had even when making money, largely from feeling their own machinery in operation.
To-day the old economic system — antiquated, obsolete, anachronistic — still nominally runs things. Centralization increases; production increases; big fortunes increase; skilled workers who are employed (including good scientists) profit more than ever before, but the group of the dispossessed constantly increases. The scientist makes a good living and he has the joy of doing what he wants to do; he is therefore uninclined to be critical of things as they are. Money-minded men succeed better than ever before in history, but the public loses; it loses knowledge, power, and wealth which rightfully belong to it. These things belong to the public both because civilization and wealth are the heritage of humanity to-day, bequeathed to it by humanity of the past, not the gift of one man nor the right of individuals, and because men who have knowledge, which makes power and wealth, have always freely given since the world began, and it is their nature to give. They give to-day — but their gifts are at once fenced in, and only reach the general public after the money-minded men have taken just as large a portion of them as they desire.
The relatively complacent self-satisfaction of the scientist is, therefore, unmerited. The situation exists. If any remedy is needed, it is in the hands of one hundred thousand scientific workers of sorts.