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February 11, 2007

Science and Policy

The Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first three nuclear bombs, is also the prototypical example of a publicly funded, goal-directed scientific project that quickly grew into a massive bureaucracy; yet, unlike most such structures, eventually succeed in accomplishing its original goal. Conceived on the eve of Word War Two out of the combined insights of two émigré European physicists and their fears that Nazi scientists were aware of, and perhaps already exploring the weapons potential peculiar to their esoteric area of expertise: nuclear chain reactions.  The project started modestly with a letter one of them had written and then persuaded Albert Einstien to send to President Roosevelt just before the invasion of Poland in September, 1939.

The rest is history

My purpose here is neither a detailed history of the Manhattan Project nor continuing the endless debate over how those three original weapons should have been used; rather it’s to call attention to the project as prototype for similar publicly-funded, goal-directed scientific projects that have eventually produced a series of brilliant successes for the US space program under the control of NASA, an organization which, like the Manhattan Project, was born out of a similar fear: that  Russia, then our sworn Cold War enemy, would gain dominance over the US by being first to develop the lethal potential of an emerging technology.

Beyond that, I’d also like to invite a comparison with the  quite different role of drug policy ‘science’ under the control of NIDA since its creation in 1975.

NASA’s first prodigious feat was fulfilling President Kennedy’s 1961 promise of a safe round trip to the Moon before 1970. Again, this is not to defend or debate the political wisdom of manned space flight; but simply to point out that the series of investigations required to accomplish that goal, although cloaked in a degree of military secrecy appropriate to the Cold War, were logical, systematic, and public to the degree possible. Since our manned space missions have always been conduted publicly, the managers of NASA have always had to face the possibilty of failing publicly. Compare their approach and results with the tactics and results of a drug policy that has always insisted that the major problem represented by drugs is ‘addiction,’ as conceived in 1914, and the only acceptable policy must be universal total abstinence from certain agents and the grudging  use of others under tight medical supervision. Also, that the arrest and criminal prosecution of violaters is the only way to secure compliance.

That that this policy has failed disastrously is an open secret to all but those with a vested interest in defending it; that the role played by science quickly shifted from studying drug use to justifying current policy should be clear to anyone with a modicum of medical knowledge and the ability to read; yet the drug war is being more ardently prosecuted than ever— especially in California and against the medical use of marijuana.

Unbiased clinical studies of illegal users are all but impossible to perform under NIDA control and any that are done are nearly impossible to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

Ironically, the success of our witless drug policy can now be seen as purely a propaganda victory based on fear and greed; entirely analogous to the initial success of the Nazis in gaining control of Germany during  the Thirties— or the success of the Bush Administration in using those same emotions to stampede this nation into an unwinnable war in the Middle East.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at February 11, 2007 12:31 AM