Noting that it’s “a terrible time for science” in the U.S., Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel has compared the effects of government science policy to the Eisenhower-McCarthy era, when scientists were persecuted for their political beliefs.
Kandel’s remarks came during an interview with Science & the City, the webzine of the New York Academy of Sciences, about his new memoir, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (Norton, March 2006).
“There’s very little funding, there’s political censorship about what one does and how one speaks about it,” he said. “I think the scientific community is extremely concerned about the future of this country given the restrictions on science at the moment.”
He added later that these restrictions are “all the more tragic since biomedical research is at a wonderfully productive point right now and in a position to have a profound impact on the treatment of disease. Moreover, the country is training the next generation of scientists and unless more funding is forthcoming, we cannot assure their future or the American leadership in science.”
Science & the City spoke with the 76-year-old Columbia University professor of Physiology and Cell Biology at the launch of his new book at the Academy Readers & Writers lecture series. Kandel is a member of the Academy’s President’s Council.
Not a Political Commentary
In the book, Kandel recalls how his mentor, Harry Grundfest, a neurologist at Columbia University, suffered a career setback when he was denied NIH funding during the height of the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts. Kandel told Science & the City that he considers the current political climate “equally disastrous” for scientists.
“From a restrictive point of view, this is an even more painful era in some ways than the Eisenhower-McCarthy era,” Kandel said. The difference, he added, is that “during the Eisenhower-McCarthy era, the opposition to McCarthy was quite strong, and the government itself felt ambivalent about McCarthy.”
Despite his strong feelings on the subject, Kandel, who emigrated to the U.S. as a child after fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna and went on to win the 2000 Nobel Prize for his work on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons, explained that his autobiography is not a “political commentary” and does not make references to Bush Administration science policies.
“I thought other people writing about it would discuss it more effectively, and they have, so I didn’t go into that, but I certainly feel it and in other contexts I have,” he said.
In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind is part personal memoir and part history of brain science. The title comes from Kandel’s observation that advances in four different disciplines — behaviorist psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology — have converged and given scientists opportunities to examine the brain in novel ways.
“We are now in a better position to bring together cognitive psychological studies and molecular studies so that a coherent approach to mental function can be developed,” he said. “With imaging, for example, we have tools for looking inside the active human brain, enabling us to have a new synthesis that wasn’t possible years ago.”
To hear all of Kandel’s provocative interview with Science & the City editor Adrienne Burke, visit www.scienceandthecity.org/podcast.