Are We Still a Nation of Science?


Written by Jonathan D. Moreno, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

A few days ago The New York Times reported that new organizations are sprouting up “to encourage scientists and engineers to speak out in public debates and even run for public office.” There are many good reasons for science to be put on the front burner of our public agenda. More than fifty percent of our economic growth since World War II is attributable to science and technology; this is the best investment our country has made. And our scientists and engineers are the best possible advocates for reinvestment in innovation, especially considering the state of our economy.

But the very fact that American scientists feel the need to aggressively advocate for science conceal a bitter irony that the Times article failed to note: We once had a group of brilliant, influential and politically engaged leaders who were fascinated by science, wanted the country to be the world leader in the pursuit of new knowledge about the natural world, and in some cases even made original contributions.

They were called the founding fathers.

Consider, for example, Benjamin Franklin, after whom one political action group, Ben Franklin’s list, is named. One can draw a line of descent from Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of his day, to Benjamin Franklin, the greatest scientist of his (and the founder of my university). The list goes on. Thomas Jefferson (founder of my previous employer, the University of Virginia), was famously preoccupied with both astronomy through Newton and political liberalism via John Locke. As a student at King’s College, now Columbia University, Alexander Hamilton was intent on a medical career and attended all the lectures on natural philosophy that he could.

John Adams, John Hancock and James Bowdoin founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. Jefferson and Hamilton, otherwise bitter rivals, made complementary contributions to the innovative foundations of the new country: Jefferson through the patent statute, Hamilton by laying the foundations for history’s most successful capitalist economy. By way of the wildly popular pamphlet Common Sense Thomas Paine was not only the most effective propagandist of the American Revolution, he also closely followed current scientific breakthroughs. In The Age of Reason he declaimed on the size of the earth, the nature of the planetary system, and the scale of the universe. Paine theorized that there must be millions of worlds like ours millions of miles apart.

President Lincoln chartered the National Academy of Sciences just as the modern meanings of the words “science” and “progress” were emerging. Especially in the industrial boom times after the Civil War, moral values were seen as a key consequence of scientific progress. Historian Charles Rosenberg has observed that “[t]he vast majority of nineteenth-century Americans never doubted that human beings had progressed and that this progress — inevitably — subsumed dimensions both moral and material. It was inconceivable to them that the steam engine and morality were not somehow interconnected.” Piety, productivity and, by the end of the nineteenth century, efficiency were all within the same universe of desirable values and consequences of science and progress.

Physics, engineering and chemistry were regnant, and biology was still largely observational rather than experimental, so the great debates about evolution and the origins of life were yet to come. Partly for this reason, conservative religious beliefs were quite compatible with a cohesive moral vision through the late 19th century. Ministers and naturalists could agree on their beliefs about nature. What has changed this American sensibility?

At the turn of the last century the atmosphere shifted due to misconceptions about Darwinism, debates about creationism and, in our time, the advent of experimental biology and modern genetics, which has stimulated political controversies like those over cloning and stem cells. Modern biology has become a cultural wedge. In popular culture, movies like Rise of the Planet the Apes continue a tradition of anxiety about the power of the life sciences that began with “Frankenstein,” with scientists the true villains who, in their fits of hubris, create innocent suffering and creatures who destroy themselves and their creators.

The United States is still by far the biggest producer of new knowledge, but China and other competitors are on the rise. In the 21st century leadership in science is not optional for a nation that proposes to remain a superpower. The new experimental biology will inevitably be part of that new foundation of power and prosperity, but the long-term investments involved require a deep and broad cultural commitment, the kind we’ve had since World War II and that fulfilled the founders’ vision. As I argue in my forthcoming book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, we need to find ways to include the new biology as part of the American narrative of the 21st century.

This post was originally published by Science Progress.

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Photo by pixbymaia via flickr creative commons


Walter Askins
Walter Askins7 years ago

I think the education issue and facts go both ways. The global warming crowd seems to want to ignore recent research that points that it is not man made. The IPCC skews there results to promote their own form of propaganda. They ignore the medieval warm period (which allowed the vikings to colonize green land I would not put a farm there today) and the cooling mini ice age that occurred afterward (note CO2 did not cause either of these events so if CO2 was such a huge deal these should not have happened). There attempt the explain away that there has been no warming in the last 10 years (telling us hot water now sinks) and sea levels appear to be dropping recently. They ignore CERN on the influence of cosmic rays on our atmosphere or that co2 levels were much higher in the past than present. I especially liked it when the new global atlases came out eliminating islands that are still there and creating islands that had been there for over 50 years and blaming it on global warming. What a crok. Oh yes Polar bears can swim. there are more bears now than in the 50's that scientist was suspended. CO2 increases when temperature rises not the other way around as Al Gore claim. What a Farce. It is all about power and control. It is all about UN Agenda 21.

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle7 years ago

It is embarrassing. This country used to value an education, being smart, exploration. Now an education means earning the most money one can. And there is the faction of Americans, the Tea Party and their ilk, who disparage education, facts. Pathetic.

Ernie Miller
william Miller7 years ago

No we are not a nation of scirence any more just a nation of greed.

Walter Askins
Walter Askins7 years ago

The White House, Congress, Senate, Take your pick.

Thomas M.
Tom M7 years ago

@Tom Y:

And where do talking snakes fit into the picture?

Tom Y.
Tom Y7 years ago

"Today that growth has created a backlash against science, and against reason. Remember, fundamentalist BELIEF is far more real than logic and reason. These are the devices of Satan."

Actually, ROBERT F., logic and reason gained currency through application at Western universities, which through most of their history were Christian, and which taught that God's created order could be rationally investigated and deduced, whether they drew on direct observations or, in some cases, the writings of the ancient Greeks (themselves polytheists). A similar approach is promoted today by commentators like Hank Hanegraaff of "The Bible Answer Man" radio show: the Christian faith is rational, evidential and intellectually defensible. Hanegraaff gives examples on defending it.

(It's unfortunate some churches aren't on side. but they're not a real threat because few outside them are influenced in any way by them.)

If you want to see belief and subjectivism trump intellectual inquiry, sit in the courtroom of any activist judge or the classroom of any activist professor, or listen repeatedly to an America-hating imam. The fog they spew at your brain is equivalent to the fog of war they're fomenting against the benefits, and bases, of Western Civilization -- especially as it's embodied in America for daring to champion humanity's freedom of conscience. Read enough facts to counter all their distortions, then brace yourself for one ugly wave...

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

We are going backwards in the USA, not forward. And if you think the Republicans don't want to take us back further, just read what their Presidential hopeful Perry want to do to our Constitution.

Robert F.
Robert F7 years ago


god. The next great leap of faith could possibly be finding the science behind, or in front of, god, or gods.

Robert F.
Robert F7 years ago

Talk about natural cycles! WW1 and the Spanish Flu Pandemic destroyed the faith that Christians had long held about cause and effect. Why would God allow the flue to hit so many pious Christians? Something was wrong with religion. The archaeological discoveries of the 20's further eroded religious faith. Science provided so much more truth at that time.

Now, the time has come for a religious revival. After decades of retrenchment, the 80's saw a sudden growth in religions, and religious belief. Christianity and Islam both grew in numbers. Today that growth has created a backlash against science, and against reason. Remember, fundamentalist BELIEF is far more real than logic and reason. These are the devices of Satan.

Times have changed, and this change is dangerously real. Science will still lead us into the future, but this time now seems to support a religious revival that includes illusion and delusion as a part of their package. Believe what feels best to you, and your favorite dogmas,and ignore that old Satan science.

Fundamentalists seem to have taken over mainstream Christianity. They are more vocal, and more politically active.

Science is not a megalithic block opposed to religion, either. Anti-God scientists like the biologist Richard Dawkins is a thorn in the side of religion, and in the sides of many who believe in a god, but support science in all ways. There are also physicists like Paul Davies who do believe in the possibility of some type of go

Frances C.
Frances C7 years ago

Democrats are a nation of science. Republicans, NOT!