The Scientific Suicide of America


By DR. CHARLES A. THOMAS, Central Research Department, Monsanto Chemical Co., Dayton, Ohio

Delivered at Company Stockholders Meeting, St. Louis, Mo., March 27, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 543-544.

A GREAT deal of publicity has been given to chemical developments which have been brought out during the war. These developments are the result of the labors of the research, development and engineering talent of this nation. The pattern of development follows pretty much these lines: First there is conceived the idea; then experimentation begins in the laboratory. At this stage there are hundreds of failures for one successful result. The engineers study only those problems which have been found to be successful in the laboratory. Often they find that a product which looked good in the laboratory stage cannot be manufactured cheaply enough to be interesting commercially. Here, again, there is another weeding-out process. Hence, the new developments which were brought out in the year 1944 represent only a few of the many projects which were worked upon. These were the few which were successful in both laboratory and plant and represent thousands of man hours of research chemists, engineers and technicians.

There is no royal highway to successful development and contrary to what our newspapers and radio announcers would have you believe, no flash of genius can conceive an idea one day and have it ready for successful exploitation the next day. It takes brain power, much experimentation, and unfortunately a lot of time. The average span from the conception of an idea to its practical utilization is somewhere between three to seven years. Therefore, the products which were brought out in 1944 were largely conceived prior to 1940 and these represent only a few successes out of hundreds of starts.

It takes not only time but also brain power. In the last ten years industry has been steadily increasing its research, engineering and technical personnel. In prewar years it engaged a constantly increasing number of technically trained men per year to take care of its normal growth and replacements. Young talent is industry's most important raw material; it bears fruit in future developments five to seven years hence. Due to our Selective Service system, however, the supply of this basic raw material has been cut off. It takes from 6 to 7 years of college or university training to develop a first rate scientist. At present, practically none are being trained; go to our universities and you will find their classrooms empty. Before the war, the normal production of scientific men of Ph.D. rank by our universities in all of the sciences, was only about 2,000 per year. If the war were over tomorrow it would take between three and six years before future young scientists could be trained, depending upon the education level of the student upon re-entering college. That means an inevitable loss of approximately 8,200 scientists, even though we resumed the training of our young men at once. It has been estimated that it will be 1955 before our colleges can recover this deficit even with no increased demand on the part of industry in the postwar years. These figures appear very insignificant as compared with our total population of 130 million, but what do they foretell as to our future leadership in science and technological advances?

We approach the postwar era with a pent-up demand for scientific progress and industrial applications of our science by industry, but we are making no provision for supplying scientists which we must have in order to meet this demand. Instead of accelerating their production as we should in order to assure increased scientific accomplishment, we have retarded it. Unless something is done immediately our country faces scientific bankruptcy.

Our Selective Service system has not only virtually eliminated the training of young scientists, but it has made it very difficult for industries and universities to retain their young, already trained men. There are thousands of scientists in the ranks of the Army and Navy at present, doing work of a non-scientific nature. Retention of these young men in our industries and universities would help to assure this country of its continued leadership in technological development.

Technological development brings about new things which in turn create new jobs, and new jobs are most important to our returning soldiers. Several thousand young scientists in uniform can do no more than several thousand other soldiers on the battlefield, but in the laboratories these young scientists may be able to create new things which would assure jobs for millions of our returning soldiers.

It is very significant to note what is going on in England, Russia, and up to a year ago in Germany in this respect. In the last war, England handled her young scientists very much the same as we are handling ours in this war, and as a consequence she lost the flower of her young scientific brains. This put England back many years technologically after the last war. In that war England put all of her men into uniforms, up to a certain age limit, irrespective of scientific achievements. One of these men was Henry Moseley, who in 1913 had given to the world, at the age of 25, the first direct experimental evidence for allocation of atomicnumbers to elements. In 1915, two years later, he was killed in action.

From a recent first-hand report on conditions in Russia1 we learn that higher education has been accelerated, rather than curtailed during the war. In 1941, Russia inaugurated a new educational plan, whereby selection of students destined for technical schools, colleges and universities is conducted somewhat as in the selection in our army of candidates to officers' schools. Upon graduation from the seventh grade, each student is considered as a prospect for either the factory or for further schooling, and a constant weeding-out process thereafter assures the retention of worthy students and graduates in civilian, professional fields. In one year, alone, in 1942, about 75,000 new industrial, transport and communication engineers, physicians, agronomists and other specialists were graduated from Soviet Schools, according to Sergei Ogoltsov, head of higher education in the U.S.S.R. This number increased in 1943. By the spring of 1943 the new plan had provided the Soviet Union with over a million trained technicians of various educational levels for employment in the iron and steel, metal, electrical, mining, railway, building, and other industries. Because the system can draw upon about forty million grade-school students for future trainees, its possibilities are enormous. In spite of Russia's total war against Hitler, the 1944 state budget of Soviet Russia actually planned for a greater expenditure for educational purposes than for "power of defense". This is true of no other country at war.

Realizing that she has been very foolish in the last war, England has taken steps not to commit this error in World War II. In England2, deferment for college and university students varies with the course taken. Scientific and technical students are deferable for one year in the first instance, after which their case is reviewed to decide whether they should be granted further deferment, or be allotted to technical work in the Forces or industry, or whether their technical qualifications do not merit further consideration. Consequently we find that England's scientific and technical schools are crowded; for example, in the 1942-1943 session, so many men undergraduates were taking scientific courses at Cambridge University that there was a "resulting congestion in the laboratories."3

At the end of their training period, technical and scientific students are at the disposal of the Ministry of Labor and National Service4 for allocation to technical service in the Forces or to important work in civilian life, as may be decided.

Obviously, England is not neglecting the training of scientific personnel; instead, she will emerge from this war more strongly equipped with scientists and technicians than at any time in her history. England realizes that this is most important in facing the postwar era.

Only the United States is following the course of scientific suicide. Research in these United States will carry on; but inevitably, due to the lack of scientific personnel, it may be drastically curtailed. This only means one thing, that new products, advances into new fields, which promise an ever enlarging economic opportunity for many will be hampered. The longer we go on with the practice of denying scientific and engineering training to young men, the longer we go on with the practice of sending our young, already trained, men into the battlefield, the worse will be our plight.

1 Edgar Snow. People on Our Side, Random House, N. Y., 1944, see particularly pages 143-144, 220-230.

2 British Information Services, Bulletin I.D. 313 (revised to March, 1944), "Control of Manpower in Britain," page 7, lines 9-17, published by British Information Services, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N. Y.

3 Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Year Book, 1944, p. 149, article entitled "Cambridge University," lines 5-6.

4 British Information Services, Bulletin I.D. 310 (revised Dec. 1943), "The British Universities after Four Years of War," page 2, lines 40-43, published by British Information Services, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York. N. Y.