Amid the mini-torrent of commentary touched off by the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address recently, I moderated a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted to the forgotten part of the speech. There, in surprisingly strong language, Eisenhower warned about the dangers the modern era posed to the spirit of science—and the dangers that science itself posed.( A partial video of the panel is here, and an article about the event from Science magazine here.) This is what Eisenhower said:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Of course, we all know that those words were completely overshadowed by Eisenhower’s warning in the same speech about the rise of a military-industrial complex. In fact, when he revisited his farewell speech in his memoirs, Eisenhower himself didn’t even mention what he’d said about science. So it may seem somewhat quixotic to take up the question now. But it’s actually quite the opposite.
Science and technology loom even larger over the American scene today than they did in 1961. Scientists and others who are frustrated by the lack of response to their warnings about climate change may scoff at talk of a powerful “scientific-technological elite,” but climate change is on the agenda because scientists put it there. Many of our most urgent public questions are the products of science, from genetic science and synthetic biology to nanotechnology and new information technologies. While it’s true that scientists must struggle to persuade politicians and the public of their views in some areas, in others they enjoy much more authority. And of course they don’t always speak with one voice.
The same variability prevails with regard to the other half of Eisenhower’s warning—which really seems the more emphatic half—about the danger of science becoming subservient to government. Scientists in some fields are completely entangled with the federal government—not necessarily to bad effect—while in others they maintain a much greater distance.
Ike isn’t often credited as one of our more thoughtful presidents, but it’s clear he had some wisdom to offer on the question of science. In his memoirs, he approvingly cites a letter he received from James Conant, the former president of Harvard—and a chemist by training—after the shock of Sputnik in 1957. Conant wrote: “Those now in college will before long be living in the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles. What will be then needed is not more engineers and scientists, but a people who will not panic and political leaders of wisdom, courage, and devotion… not more Einsteins but more Washingtons and Madisons.”
Image credit: Farewell address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower from the U.S. National Archives