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Book Review : 'Circuit Riders': Giving Away Research Money Is an Art

June 28, 1989|LEE DEMBART

The Circuit Riders: Rockefeller Money and the Rise of Modern Science by Gerald Jonas (W. W. Norton & Co.; $22.95; 432 pages)

Research is inherently haphazard and unpredictable. No one knows for sure how to guarantee discoveries--much less important discoveries--in science.

It's not just a matter of getting smart people, giving them research tools and support and letting them pursue their interests. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.

Nor should their efforts be highly structured and controlled. That, too, is unlikely to bring success--however one measures success. Some combination of structure and freedom is required.

Good intentions and selflessness do not guarantee achievement. Louis Pasteur, who was only trying to help the French wine industry solve a problem, did more to benefit humanity than all of the Florence Nightingales put together.

Various Approaches Tried

During the last few centuries, a variety of approaches have been tried. In the 18th Century, the British government offered a prize of 20,000 pounds for the development of a clock that could keep time at sea, making possible navigation by the stars--a prize that was won by John Harrison.

The prize approach is still in limited use for specific goals. For example, in recent years, prizes spurred the development of human-powered airplanes.

The most important prize in science is open-ended. Nobel Prizes are awarded after the fact, not for previously identified achievements but for work that is recognized as important. There is no doubt that the Nobel Prize is a carrot that drives many scientists and much science.

Since World War II, government support for research has been an indispensable element in maintaining the scientific enterprise. But it was not always so. Earlier in this century, private philanthropy accounted for the bulk of that support, none more important than the hundreds of millions of dollars given to scientists by the Rockefeller Foundation.

No Easy Task

Gerald Jonas tells the history of that support with considerable clarity and insight in "The Circuit Riders: Rockefeller Money and the Rise of Modern Science." He demonstrates that giving away money is no easy task, and he also demonstrates that John D. Rockefeller hired exceptionally talented people to decide how to do it.

Still, they were faced with the problem that today confronts all benefactors of science, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health: namely, how to give away money effectively.

Having decided that the goal is to benefit humanity by increasing knowledge in science and medicine, how can that be achieved? How does one identify worthy projects, and how does one identify the right people to undertake them? Ideally, this should be done objectively, and the current process of peer review is intended to do just that.

But research into the peer-review process has shown that scientists are as human as anyone else and that objectivity is an unachievable goal.

The Rockefeller Foundation, and particular its longtime director, Warren Weaver, made decisions on a much more personal basis, but with no less success. In fact, Jonas argues that the foundation's enlightened philanthropy has done a better job of supporting science than the government or corporation-sponsored research.

The foundation played important roles in the discovery of penicillin, as well as in the agricultural revolutions that have increased crop yields around the world. Those achievements alone help make Jonas' case.

There have also been clinkers--how could there not be?--and Jonas describes them too. But, overall, he is a stanch defender of the foundation against various critics, and his argument is persuasive.

It is not clear, however, how this success story can be duplicated. The lesson seems to be that if you get very good people to hand out the money, much can be achieved. But that just pushes the inquiry one stage back. Rather than asking how to find brilliant scientists, the question becomes how to find brilliant administrators to hand out the money.

As in most other areas of human endeavor, if you put the right people in the right jobs, you have a chance. But doing that remains an art, not a science.

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