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Stanford Report, May 31, 2000

Osheroff discusses challenges faced by physicists in the post-Cold War era


Public ignorance about the process of basic scientific research. The consequent problems faced by scientists seeking funding from government sources. And the danger of turning Nobel laureates into icons.

These are the issues that Professor Douglas Osheroff, a 1996 Nobel Prize winner in physics, touched on during last Friday's Ethics@Noon talk. While Osheroff questioned whether his pet peeves are purely ethical problems, the scientist said he was more qualified to discuss them than talk about political quandaries such as U.S. involvement in Bosnia.

"It's been a long time since I thought about any ethical issues at all," Osheroff told about a dozen students and campus community members gathered in Building 110 for the weekly speaker series. That's because, he said, it's extremely hard to cheat in physics: Experiments have to be reproducible.

Osheroff explained that, since the end of the Cold War, it has become increasingly difficult for scientists like him working in basic research to obtain funding support. When the Soviet Union was viewed as the enemy superpower, he said, physics research in this country was funded because it was regarded as vital for national defense. "Just as physics brought us transistors and we're happy [to have] them, physics also brought the military the hydrogen bomb," he explained. "Even though [that] wasn't particularly good, if our enemies had it and we didn't, that was particularly bad. That was the reason for funding physics research for a long time."

All that changed after 1990 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Instead of using national defense as a justification for research, scientists had to prove that their work was vital for U.S. economic competitiveness. "That's tough for someone doing extra-low temperature physics," he said. The discovery of superfluidity that earned Osheroff the Nobel has no commercial or economic interest, the professor said.

Osheroff said it disturbs him when researchers are forced to make claims about their work that they only marginally believe in themselves because the government and the public don't understand the process of basic research. "The United States wins at least half of the Nobels given in the physical sciences," he says. "That's remarkable. And yet the American public is blissfully ignorant of the process that results in the new technologies and the new discoveries that are rewarded by Nobel prizes."

Scientists do not work in a vacuum, Osheroff explained. "I will always point out that the work I did that led to the Nobel Prize rested very strongly on the contributions of other people," he said. But people choose to ignore this. "[They] simply don't want to think about the complicated structure that makes the scientific establishment function. As a result, the scientific community is "perpetually in a state of instability" because it relies on public funding.

Finally, Osheroff said, as a laureate, he feels a greater sense of responsibility to "propagate the enthusiasm I feel for science" and to "gently correct" the misimpressions people have about the discipline. During the first year after he won the prize, Osheroff logged more than 100,000 miles traveling around the world to talk about science. He still travels extensively.

But earning a Nobel hasn't made him an expert on everything. Osheroff said that once an aide to a state legislator called him and asked for his views on science education, from kindergarten to 12th grade. "I said, 'Surely, I'm not an expert at that,'" he recalled. "The aide was almost speechless. He said, 'You must be, you're a Nobel laureate.'" SR