Sunday, January 2, 2011

Low Pay Slows Advances

From the Science News Letter, August 4, 1962, page 71:

Low Pay Slows Advances

Seven out of ten top scientific conquests of the 1950s were advanced by government scientists or government-sponsored laboratories, Dr. James R. Killian, Jr., chairman of the Corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a public service report published by the National Civil Service League.

Dr. Killian, special assistant for science and technology to President Eisenhower, warns that lagging pay for scientists and engineers, career executives and professional people threaten national security as well as scientific advancement.

Dr. Killian reported that in identifying the ten top scientific or technological conquests of the 1950s, the research and development heads of major U.S. corporations recently cited seven to which scientists in government or government-sponsored laboratories had made notable contributions.

These were: The penetration of space, hydrogen fusion, power from nuclear fission, solid state electronics, electronic computers, reducing the cost of conversion of salt water to fresh water, and commercial jet aviation. And in forecasting what this decade might bring, they identified five areas in which government researchers are deeply involved -- manned space flight, fusion power, thermo-electricity, control of cancer, and the advancement of biology ever closer to the origin of life.

One of the nation's least recognized but most critical current problems is how to get and keep top scientific and engineering talent in the Federal career civil service.

Dr. Killian observed: "With all the assets and achievements to their credit, why should we be concerned about government scientists and engineers? What is going wrong? What must be tackled? Chiefly it is a matter of maintaining the pace that has been set -- and I fear there are critical factors so seriously slowing that pace that they constitute a threat to the national welfare and security. The most important of these factors is pay. Government pay for scientists, along with that for career executives and other professional personnel, is lagging farther and farther behind pay for work of lesser scope and impact in private employment. "The Federal government plays the key role in our national security and it is the most complex organization in the country; yet it compensates its top people, in law, engineering, economics, and other fields, as well as science, at substandard salaries that would make any private corporation blush. As a consequence, although many good men, largely recruited during World War II, are still in government -- held, in some cases by the challenge of their work, in others, by their substantial investment in the retirement system -- the Federal service is facing critical, growing, daily losses of its best scientific people and is unable to recruit experienced, competent replacements for them."

My, how things change.

In 1962, government had a hand in seven of the top ten scientific advances identified by R&D heads of major U.S. corporations. Today, people would say Tell me one thing the government has done right.

In 1962, the article reports, government was losing many of its best people to the private sector because government employees were underpaid. Today, people would say Government employees are overpaid.

In 1962, the concern was to maintain the pace of scientific advance. Today, the concern is to cut government spending on "wasteful" things like NASA and the Superconducting Super Collider.

In 1962, national security was tied to scientific advance. Today it is tied to public groping at the airport.

This is just an opinion, but I don't think the government has changed all that much. I think the economy changed, and people's view of government changed with it.

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