The lemmings are on the march, but perhaps most of them have little choice in a world where the practice of science has become, to a devastating extent, equated with getting money. The typical attractor is a magical word that becomes the imprint, logo, or brand (to use the language of business) for the agencies administering public funds for (engineering and) science. This is ‘sold’ to the US Office of Management and Budget to get step function increases in R&D budgets. This labeling is a standard marketing device. Find a ‘halo’ word that most people, including the decision-maker, do not understand. The word should be new, different, euphonious, and connected somehow, however tenuously, to science. This is rarely difficult, with appropriate embellishments of connections and exaggerations of the potential benefits. Tempered claims are to be avoided. Almost nothing need be sacrosanct in the noble cause of ‘getting more money for science’. And who can object to that, except legislators and citizens? Do I exaggerate? Newsweek recently referred to a young researcher who claims that carbon nanotubes could make steel obsolete! This is the contemporary manifestation of the human need for mythopoesis: creating iconic ideas to which we attach special, even ‘magical’ meanings. It is a double-edged sword, and responsible scientists should enter the arena with great care.

Consider the history of the ‘life on Mars’ and ‘ceramic superconductors’ episodes. National space policy has been warped by the former phrase, based on the flimsiest data, where the consensus was, and is, against the judgment that we have any credible evidence for it. On ceramic superconductors, where there was indeed a real major discovery contravening the ruling Bardeen Cooper Schrieffer (BCS) paradigm, the issue was different. How and how much to follow up on such a discovery? I have estimated that some $10 billion has been spent on research in this area, worldwide. I suggest that $1 billion would have been adequate to make at least the same amount of progress. This would have required generously funding the established groups in the field and some of the highest-risk projects by experienced scientists in related fields. Industry roughly followed that path and most got out in just a few years. Europe was largely more measured in its response than the US. Moreover, and this is the point of this essay, the other $9 billion would almost certainly have done more and better science if spread across several fields, if it were not channeled forcibly by the hype and pull of agency requests for proposals. The scientifically unfocused group of researchers that dive into any field, because there is money there, take effort away from where the same personnel really excel and might make a contribution.

The moral question before the community should be: Is this an appropriate way for the science community to increase its budgets? Deans and scientific society presidents love to make arch comments about ethics in science. Never have I seen a discussion of the ethics of confusing the public and the non-technically-literate leadership by exaggerated claims. Every minor advance, especially in medicine, is ballyhooed on TV and by other media.

How could a citizen-materials scientist be more responsible? One part of our approach could well be to ask: What are the greatest problems that society faces today, where our scientific engineering — materials science and engineering — could contribute to their solution? Especially when materials technologies are involved in creating some of these problems, citizen-materials scientists should have something to offer. Certainly, many of the activities that have affected our environment negatively go through a ‘materials phase’. Surely, where materials science, civic responsibility, and personal ethics meet is the place to put our science to work to alleviate those problems. A moment's reflection will tell you that these must be on a ‘giga’ scale, if they are to affect society's real needs — at the other end of the scale from the current halo regime of ‘nano’. We produce about 1000 million (giga) tons of both primary metals and cement. The food we process is also a ‘giga’ problem. Have we nothing to contribute here? Materials scientists should surely be leading the effort in the life-cycle management of steel and other components of cars. Why not of concrete; why not recycle skyscrapers and highway surfacing (along with fly ash) already available in giga quantities? The CO2 problem is a giga problem to which all kinds of materials science can be made relevant. We can even make cement with no CO2 emission. Instead, we are distracted by ‘nanoscience’.

No one is proposing that we stop our progress to go from 1 μm to 0.1 μm or lower in DRAM pitch, nor in finding a contemporary successor to the hugely successful 40 year-old nanocomposite technology of glass ceramics. My science policy argument is against narrowing science qua science by mythopoesis. My scientist-citizen case is against ignoring the needs of society where materials science and engineering can help.

To those who say there are no challenging problems in the giga range, I offer the following challenge. Offer the same amount of money for giga-science and giga-technologies as is done for nanoscience and nanotechnologies, and just wait for the giga-piles of proposals!

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)01280-4