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Leon Lederman: Nobel laureate and Illinois' first science adviser

Photo by Richard Foertsch/Photoprose

Leon N. Lederman

Leon N. Lederman, Illinois' first science adviser, worries about "the glaze." It coats the eyes of politicians when scientific subjects come up. The glaze might not be so important if it weren't for the fact that crucial policy issues involving science and technology are everywhere: global climate change, solid waste disposal, high-speed rail transit and stimulation of the advanced technology industry to name just a few.

The way Illinois handles these and other scientific issues in the next few years will determine its economic, political and intellectual health well into the 21st century, Lederman says. The state's political leaders need to rid themselves of the glaze if they're going to be capable of guiding debates on these issues and maintaining an intelligent skepticism when presented with the conflicting testimony of technical experts.

"You don't want to trust the scientist," Lederman said in a recent interview in his office at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, where he is director emeritus. "You want to be critical of him. You want to listen to an argument between two guys and have the judgment to say, 'that guy's talking science, but this guy is just using the word science.' "

To aid politicos in making such judgments, Lederman has helped form an elite corps of Illinois scientists who have pooled their experience and talents to give government the best possible technical advice. He organized and chairs the Governor's Science Advisory Committee (GSAC), under which several volunteer panels of experts review applications in a multimillion-dollar state challenge grant program. A separate army of GSAC task forces studies current and future

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scientific, environmental and health-related issues confronting the state.

Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was named the Illinois science adviser by Gov. James R. Thompson in 1988. That label conjures an image of an all-round expert who periodically receives calls from the governor asking advice about this or that technical issue, but that's not how it works in Illinois. Although he meets with the governor a few times a year, Lederman's main function as the state's top science official is to run GSAC.

"Our role, at least as defined so far, is really, 'How can we make the state rich, prosperous and healthy?' " Lederman said. "And the direction of that is to try to bring in jobs and activity based on the high-technology flow."

It would be difficult to find someone better suited for the job. Lederman is one of Illinois' and the world's most distinguished scientists and able administrators. Born and educated in New York City, Lederman served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York in 1951. He spent the next 28 years at Columbia, doing research there and at several other labs in the United States and Europe. For 17 years before becoming head of Fermilab in 1979, he was director of Nevis Laboratories, Columbia's high-energy physics research facility. He has published more than 200 technical papers and been mentor to 52 doctoral students.

It would be difficult to find someone better suited for the job. Lederman is one of Illinois' and the world's most distinguished scientists and able administrators

Lederman shared a Nobel in physics in 1988 for his role in discovering subatomic particles known as neutrinos. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1965 and has won several other prestigious scientific prizes. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the nation's most elite group of researchers, and has become one of the world's most active advocates for better science education and continued funding for high-energy physics. Lederman retired from Fermilab on July 1, 1989, after a 10-year stint as director. Fermilab is a U.S. Department of Energy facility with a staff of 2,000 and an annual budget of about $175 million. He still works at the lab and is teaching physics at the University of Chicago. Lederman is president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest and most publicly active scientific organization in the United States. He chairs the board of the Aspen (Colo.) Center for Physics and serves on the board of directors of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. Lederman helped found the academy, which is the first three-year statewide residential public school for gifted high school students.

Lederman believes that scientists have an important role to play in society beyond their laboratory research. He says, however, that they must first earn their spurs as scientists, "which means staying in the laboratory for 20 years, or wherever they're working. Scientists, especially young scientists, have to do science. They shouldn't mix in society." He smiled, whimsically, and added, "They're allowed occasionally to listen to the news."

As they mature as researchers, they begin to take on other responsibilities. "It sort of comes naturally," Lederman said. "You get into administrative work. You become chair of the physics department. You go to faculty meetings. You might be called to become an adviser to some Washington funding agency. You might testify before Congress. You become director of a laboratory. You begin to take on responsibilities on the interface between science and the outside world."

Civic-minded scientists who try to inform government policy inevitably meet "the glaze.'' It's enough to make them want to go back to the university and do a better job teaching science to future politicians, or volunteer to be science advisers . . . or run for office. "I would personally like to see a big pot of money somewhere that would encourage scientists to run for office," Lederman said. "If you look at the problems facing the United States . . ." He didn't finish the sentence.

No such pot of money exists. For the past two years, however, the Illinois General Assembly has given the state's scientific community a sizable amount of money to plant seeds for new advanced technology industry in the state. GSAC members and a partner group of corporate CEOs, known as the Illinois Coalition, accept proposals from researchers and decide which projects merit money from the state's Technology Challenge Grant Program. Volunteers from GSAC and the coalition, sitting on nine separate panels, award grants ranging from a few thousand to a few million dollars.

The panels include computing and networking; materials; natural resources; environment and chemical; manufacturing; and food, agriculture and biotechnology. Since the volunteer panel members are some of the top scientists in their field, "the state's getting a fantastic bargain," Lederman said.

The grants are given to the most worthy research ventures likely to "leverage" federal funds into Illinois and to promote collaboration among the state's universities, industries and federal laboratories. More science can mean more business and more jobs, which can mean more state tax revenue. "Then you can start spending more on education; your universities get better, your schools get better, and more people come to Illinois," Lederman said. "It's a way of trying to become the best state in the nation."

In September when Lederman was interviewed for this article, the panels were in the midst of judging the 1990 challenge grant proposals, for which the legislature had allocated $17 million. The previous year's $20 million allocation had brought in about twice that amount in leveraged funds, Lederman estimated. As more challenge grant funds become available over the next few

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years from state and private sources, the ratio could jump to 10 to one, 100 to one or even 1,000 to one. "Those are the kinds of odds you get out of R and D," he said. "The only other place you can get odds like that is in Las Vegas."

The scientific research potential of Illinois is 'very high,' Lederman believes. 'There are enormous intellectual resources here. It's just not known. . . . it's the best-kept secret'

Lederman's other main function as state science adviser is to oversee the study of current and future scientific issues with serious consequences for the state. For this, GSAC and coalition volunteers have split up into about a dozen task forces, covering issues from medical technology and computer software to solid waste disposal and how to connect government, university and industry offices and labs around the state on a computer network.

Among the most intriguing of these is a task force known as "Vision." Members are looking 20, 30 and even 50 years out, think-tanking what the possibilities and needs will be in the state's science future. Their agenda includes math and science education, emerging research fields, modernizing universities, continuing education for professionals and retraining for advanced technology industry.

Another task force is studying Illinois' role in responding to global climate change. One idea tossed about these days is to launch a new federal research laboratory for climate research at an abandoned military base perhaps Fort Sheridan in Chicago. It could provide an excellent site for physicists, chemists, biologists, atmospheric scientists and others to gather for study of this highly interdisciplinary and controversial field. "It's not going to be easy to implement," Lederman admitted, "but it's an idea."

In many ways, GSAC and the Illinois Coalition are children of the state's failed attempt to win the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). It's been about two years since Texas was selected as the site of the $4 billion atom smasher. Illinois had been "a lively prospect," largely thanks to the way different sectors of the state pulled together during the intense national competition, Lederman said. This group studied the feasibility of Illinois as a site for the SSC and pitched hard to federal officials. "We didn't win, but there was nothing wrong with the method," he said. "We had good connections. We had labor. We had management. We had academia. We had the politicians. It was a very good partnership of people dedicated to an objective: to benefit the state."

After six months of grousing about the SSC loss, many of the players reappeared on GSAC and the Illinois Coalition. Although such state departments as Energy and Natural Resources can give expert advice on technical issues, the GSAC-Coalition framework provides a broad, elite body of expertise to which Illinois political leaders can now direct important scientific questions. "We've developed a good working style," Lederman said.

The new Illinois governor may want to take advantage of GSAC and the coalition to get advice on how to handle several major science-oriented issues he will have to face. Many of these issues remain unsettled. (Both candidates have said they will continue the science advisory program.)

What to do with high-sulfur Illinois coal is one such question. Illinois has vast reserves that could be an economic boon for the state, but only if researchers can find a cheap way to burn the relatively "dirty" coal cleanly. The state currently sponsors a major research program in high-sulfur coal, but more effort may be needed. "One has to make a judgment as to whether we're spending enough money on that at this point, or whether we're collaborating with other states that have the same problem," said Lederman, who emphasized that he did not know the details of the current program.

The governor should also take a hard look at biomedical research in Illinois, he said. "That's a field where the Chicago area ought to do better than it is doing. It can only benefit the citizens. If you have much better research here, you will have much better health care."

The future of the Great Lakes is another issue that requires careful analysis. Scientists need to determine what future water levels will be so officials from the Great Lakes states can work together to iron out the potentially major political and legal problems.

The new governor also should consider spending more on basic research at universities, Lederman said. Although it often appears random and esoteric, basic research provides the foundation for technological development and subsequent economic benefits. Illinois is short-changing itself here. "Supporting basic research is an important investment in the future," he said. "States that don't do this will not reap any of the benefits, and states that do are going to, if you like, ensure their luck. You know, you hear, "That guy's lucky.' Well, he's done things to make sure that somehow when the luck hits, he's there."

Federal support of research has been declining for many years, and such states as Texas and California "the states you'd expect" are spending large sums in support of research programs. The amounts are five to 10 times what Illinois is spending, he said.

The scientific research potential of Illinois is "very high," Lederman believes. "There are enormous intellectual resources here. It's just not known. I sometimes think it's the best-kept secret." Why it's a secret is unclear, but Lederman suspects it has to do with biases within the national news media that cause major newspapers and television networks to overlook the Midwest. "That's a PR problem," he said.

One idea to overcome the image problem would be for some Illinois institution to produce a weekly television program about

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international developments in science. The program might come out of Chicago's public television station, WTTW, and have a "strong representation" of work done at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and other Illinois academic, industrial and government labs.

He's not asking for . . . legions of calculus and chemistry whizzes, just people exposed enough to the details and culture of science to be comfortable with the subject

Another crucial need is for better science and math education in Illinois. Here, too, Lederman believes state government isn't helping enough, despite the advent of the Math and Science Academy. Lederman recalls many occasions as director of Fermilab when he attempted to hire top scientists from around thecountry. The first question was always, "How good are your schools?" "I'd say, 'Occasionally you can find some very good schools here,' " Lederman said. "We don't do that well. We should be No. 1."

But good science education is crucial for more than just successful recruiting of the best and brightest from around the nation. A work force with a healthy degree of science literacy is important for attracting high-technology industry, just as a scientifically literate citizenry is becoming increasingly important for good decisions in the Illinois legislature and at the ballot box, Lederman said.

Better television coverage of science could help noncollege graduates become more familiar with science. At the college level, Lederman would like to see a four-year math and science requirement for all graduates physicists and poets alike. Such immersion would include technical aspects of science as well as study of the historical impact of science on society. He's not asking for high schools and colleges to churn out legions of calculus and chemistry whizzes, just people exposed enough to the details and culture of science to be comfortable with the subject. "I don't care if they don't remember anything," he said. "If one has enough science and mathematics so it's not too frightening, one will graduate with a sense of comfort with science and therefore be a much better presidential candidate, journalist, TV anchorman and citizen."

William H. Allen is science writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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