Leo Szilard—the physicist who first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction and who urged the US to undertake the Manhattan Project—also wrote fiction. His book of short stories, The Voice of the Dolphins, contains a story “The Mark Gable Foundation,” dated 1948, from which I will present to you an excerpt, without comment:
“I’m thinking of setting up a trust fund. I want to do something that will really contribute to the happiness of mankind; but it’s very difficult to know what to do with money. When Mr. Rosenblatt told me that you’d be here tonight I asked the mayor to invite me. I certainly would value your advice.”
“Would you intend to do anything for the advancement of science?” I asked.
“No,” Mark Gable said. “I believe scientific progress is too fast as it is.”
“I share your feeling about this point,” I said with the fervor of conviction, “but then why not do something about the retardation of scientific progress?”
“That I would very much like to do,” Mark Gable said, “but how do I go about it?”
“Well,” I said, “I think that shouldn’t be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make out a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as chairmen at salaries of fifty thousand dollars each. Also have about twenty prizes of one hundred thousand dollars each for the best scientific papers of the year. This is just about all you would have to do. Your lawyers could easily prepare a charter for the foundation. As a matter of fact, any of the National Science Foundation bills which were introduced in the Seventy-ninth and Eightieth Congresses could perfectly well serve as a model.”
“I think you had better explain to Mr. Gable why this foundation would in fact retard the progress of science,” said a bespectacled young man sitting at the far end of the table, whose name I didn’t get at the time of introduction.
“It should be obvious,” I said. “First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly, the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. For a few years there might be a great increase in scientific output; but by going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. Some things would be considered interesting, others not. There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashion would get grants. Those who wouldn’t would not, and pretty soon they would learn to follow the fashion, too.”