Eisenhower on the Threat of “Big Science” –Ike’s 2nd Critical Warning


  Cern (1)



Science is both corporate and political, when it comes to basic research the private sector and government fund about half each, so if you defend science you are implicitly defending corporations and engaging in politics. It wasn't always that way.

Ernest Lawrence, whose name is now on both Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Lab, ushered in the era of academic Big Science. He found that if you did what government wanted, they would throw money at you. And then you could use some of that money to do what you wanted. It really caught on after the Manhattan Project, which was the ultimate use of government guiding academic research to create applied science. People whose entire labs were funded with less than $20,000 per year saw Lawrence getting hundreds of thousands, and then millions, from Uncle Sam and the race was on: Government was firmly in the science business and academics wanted to be in business with politicians.


Not everyone was pleased by that. Most famous of the concerned about this new control of basic research by government was President Dwight David Eisenhower – "Ike." Ike was someone so concerned about keeping politics out of strategic resources he refused to vote while he was a military officer. To him, it was a conflict of interest because he was paid by the government. His concern only grew while he was president during the bulk of the 1950s and government took more and more control of science funding. As politicians funded more of it, he believed, academia was going to self-select for those who also believed in big government and it would no longer be non-partisan. And corporations were going to control academic science by controlling politicians. Academics who "play the game" were going to get more funding and head up grant committees and panels.

The concern about the growing"military-industrial complex" from Ike's 1961 farewell address – most alarming because he was a career military man who won War World II in Europe before he became President partly thanks to the military-industrial complex – became part of the cultural lexicon. But less well known is his second warning, about manipulation of academia by political interests, which Fred discussed in 2011 and passed around at our meeting.

President Eisenhower surrounded himself with brilliant academics, he knew that science ended World War II without costing another million American lives, but by 1961 he also knew "we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

He worried about that government control over funding would change the nature of the “free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery.” And it has. If you want to find happiness in an academia, find a humanities professor at a small college. If you want to find pressure, go to a biology lab at Johns Hopkins, which needs $300 million a year from the NIH if it's going to put up new buildings and recruit key names who can then raise more money from NIH.

Ike was right about culture as well. A decade after his speech, academia was still politically balanced and conservatives had the most trust in academic science, but by the 1980s they had begun to self-select for people who liked government funding. They even began to suggest that corporate science – the companies who put men on the moon and develop the vaccines and antibiotics and the GMO insulin that have saved hundreds of millions of lives – meant less independence. Academia meant freedom. You're a liberal because you're just smarter. It's reality that when people know you are partisan, they trust your objectivity less even if you are on their side. Today, only progressives trust academic science. Conservatives, liberals and libertarians do not.

But today that tide is turning again. A new generation of science academics are starting on their third post-doc position and questioning the Old Guard's claims that corporate funding is wrong and only government is right and you can't be a scientist unless you are a liberal. They realize that taxes are finite and that billions of dollars in federal government marketing about STEM careers in academia have led to a glut in Ph.D. supply, and there are academic jobs for just 16 percent of graduating scientists. They have become pawns for scientific-technological elites with little chance of getting a seat at the table, just as President Eisenhower warned.

The Daily Galaxy via Hank Campbell American Council on Science & Health 

Image credit: CERN




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