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'83 Nobels: does past glory equal future leadership in science?

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Hard on the heels of the American sweep of Nobel prizes in the sciences this year, we are hearing warnings from some scientists. The nub of their argument: that the prizes represent work done many years - even decades - ago. That the picture they give of American predominance in pure science (and its stepchild, technology) is out of date. That the prizes may make the nation's public complacent just when the United States is in trouble on science education.

Are these arguments valid?

Probably not in regard to American leadership in theoretical science and in basic technological research in many major fields.

Probably so in regard to science and technology education - particularly at the primary and secondary school level.

It is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about branches of knowledge whose complexity is increasing more rapidly than historians of science can grasp.

But there is a growing belief among scientific administrators - people charged with keeping abreast of, and funding work in, the fundamental sciences and their practical offshoots in microelectronics, biotechnology, superstrength engineering plastics, superceramics, etc. - that the United States and Japan will continue to lead the world in most of these areas.

In this assessment, Western Europe will trail in many of the key fields, despite concentrated efforts in West Germany, France, and Britain. And the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will slip badly behind - even in some technological areas where they once were leaders.

In this picture of global scientific progress, we have a new version of the old division between industrial societies and hewers of wood and drawers of water. Those who make sci-tech projections see the US and Japan as superpowers of science and research just as the US and USSR are military superpowers. They forecast further strides in the process by which Japan rose to preeminence in microelectronics via steppingstones involving worldwide leadership in shipbuilding, automobiles, and consumer electronics - which have been gradually subcontracted out to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even North Borneo.

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