I’ve always been a science person. I remember reading Popular Mechanics and doing science projects when I was still in elementary school. When my neighbor received a really nice telescope as a Christmas gift, we were out in the freezing New York City weather trying to view the rings of Saturn. This was way before telescopes had GPS and finder devices, so it took considerable effort to find and focus the telescope on our target.
There was something about the scientific method, trial and error, and making progress in solving a problem or advancing knowledge that really appealed to me.
My love for photography led to my brother and I building a darkroom in our bedroom. We had a really nice Omega B-22 enlarger with Nikon lens. Our trays of chemicals were placed on a 18″ x 6″ piece of 3/4″ plywood on top of two matching bookcases. We washed our prints in a tray attached to the bathtub faucet. We learned how to do black & white film processing and enlarging by reading materials from the Queensborough Public Library.
Many of our fellow Boomers in Bell Park Manor Terrace were also into science and math. We had some truly exceptional student minds around us. Many went on to careers in biomedicine, chemistry, nuclear energy, early computer science and engineering.
Later, when I became involved in sci-tech publishing, the notions of peer-review and bodies of knowledge became extensions of these earlier experiences. Thinking back, it was common in the sciences for individuals or groups of scientists to be working on similar discoveries almost simultaneously. This was long before the global connectivity we know today.
For example, Edison and Tesla both worked on electrical circuits in the 1880s. While the well-known “war” of AC vs. DC put them at odds, it is clear both men advanced the emerging body of knowledge in electrical engineering.
Before electronic publishing, the peer-reviewed world of print scholarly publishing enabled scientists to conduct manual literature searches to see what others were working on. Practitioners, students and academic faculty would all contribute to what make up humankind’s advancing knowledge. While there was certainly room for disagreement, the foundation of hypotheses, scientific methodology, data collection and reporting were not disputed. To contribute to the discipline-specific bodies of knowledge require you play by the rules.
In all of this the role of the U.S. Government was one of leader. As corporations shied away from the expense of fundamental research driven by the profit motive, the government often stepped in to pay for what needed to be done.
One of my earliest powerful memories was when the Russians beat the United States into space with the launch of the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957. I remember walking to P.S. 33 when one of my friends said, “did you hear the Russians launched a satellite into space last night?” I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach, as this was my first experience of the United States not being first in a scientific milestone.
After this event, the United States government created NASA and began to put a lot of funding into the “handling of scientific and technical information.” R&D was seen as a major strategy for how we could accelerate our development of needed aerospace and defense technologies. Ironically, this event and the early spending by the government, eventually led to the contract where the Lockheed Information Systems group developed the initial NASA-RECON database of aerospace literature. This early online database could be accessed by all NASA locations. The RECON software went on to become Dialog, recognized worldwide as a pioneer in online information retrieval. My 14 years at Dialog was the most formative part of my entire career.
The work of the U.S. Government in publishing has a long and distinguished history. Government Documents were an important part of many libraries’ way before online access. In the online world, the early work of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) and the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) are all given due credit in creating and developing the world of online information retrieval.
For example, NLM produced and provided access to the world’s leading resource of medical literature, known as MEDLINE (now PubMed). This work, including the use of a specialized medical vocabulary (MeSH – Medical Subject Headings) set standards for a comprehensive global research tool and for descriptive indexing (“information about information”) decades before the term metadata appeared in the more contemporary online world. NLM would revise and update this vocabulary constantly to be in-sync with the rapidly moving world of medical research. They would require their online vendors “re-load” the vocabulary and complete database each year to reflect these updates. This was a major project of the technical teams at Dialog every year.
With this background, it is very hard to watch the decline of scientific leadership by the U.S. Government. The agencies that work in the science disciplines seem to be under attack, and this is not an argument about subtle points of science. This onslaught shows a lack of respect for the definition of knowledge and truth that has developed over centuries, and I don’t feel I’m overstating the problem.
It is hard to imagine how any individual would not respect how the United States helped lead the world to higher truth via encouraging the development and distribution of information that benefits all. In the long haul, science always wins.