Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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How to retard science? Set up a grant programme. From Leo Szilard's Mark Gable Foundation (1961).

Posted: Feb 18, 2016 15:02;
Last Modified: Feb 18, 2016 15:02

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A story about how to wreck science, from Szilard, Leo. 1961. “The Mark Gable Foundation.” In The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 117–30. Stanford University Press. https://books.google.ca/books?id=xm2mAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=The%20Voice%20of%20the%20Dolphins%3A%20And%20Other%20Stories&pg=PA121#v=onepage&q&f=false

“I have earned a very large sum of money,” said Mr.Gable,turning tome,“with very little work. And now I’m thinking of setting up a trust fund. I want to do something that will really contribute to the happiness of mankind; but it’s very difficult to know what to do with money…”

“Would you intend to do anything for the advancement of science?” I asked.

“No,” Mark Gable said. “I believe scientific progress is too fast as it is.”

“I share your feeling about this point,” I said with the fervor of conviction, “but why not do something about the retardation of scientific progress?”

“That I would very much like to do,” Mark Gable said, “but how do I go about it?”

“Well,” I said, “I think that shouldn’t be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make out a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications.Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as chairmen at salaries of fifty thousand dollars each. Also have about twenty prizes of one hundred thousand dollars each for the best scientific papers of the year. This is just about all you would have to do. Your lawyers could easily prepare a charter for the foundation….”

“I think you had better explain to Mr. Gable why this foundation would in fact retard the progress of sciences,said a bespectacled young man sitting at the far end of the table, whose name I didn’t get at the time of introduction.

“It should be obvious,” I said. “First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly, the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain tolead to publishable results. For a few years there might be a great increase in scientific output; but by going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would becomes something like a parlor game. Some things would be considered interesting, others not. There would be fashions. Those who followed fashion would get grants. Those who wouldn’t would not, and pretty soon they would learn to follow the fashion, too.” (127-129).

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