In a speech to the National Academy of Sciences in April 1961, John F. Kennedy began by commenting on how the relationship between science and democracy was one of great interest to him:
“In the earliest days of the founding of our country there was among some of our Founding Fathers a most happy relationship, a most happy understanding of the ties which bind science and government together.”
Kennedy went on to address the obligations of science to a free society and the role of science and scientists in moving our own country forward by solving complex problems and informing the policies that safeguard the health, safety, and security of all Americans. The National Academy of Sciences is, in Kennedy’s words, “a great natural resource” for our nation’s decision makers.
Of course, JFK was neither the first nor the last U.S. president to recognize and respect the longstanding and indivisible partnership between science and democracy. Some of our presidents, however, have done more than others to respect and protect our nation’s knowledge resources. And that’s why, in honor of Presidents Day, the Center for Science and Democracy is highlighting the science-friendly achievements of eight U.S. presidents.
We believe that, collectively, these eight presidents — Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and H.W. Bush — have secured a legacy of discoveries, inventions, science agencies, and science-based policies that Americans continue to benefit from today. Until Presidents Day, when the winner will be announced, you can vote for your favorite in our bracket challenge.
Acknowledging the bad with the good
While determining the president “most” supportive of science is ultimately a subjective decision, we narrowed our selection based largely on the lasting impact these presidents have had through science-informed decisions made during their administrations.
Such decisions drove America’s progress over time, even if it took future presidents and future generations to fully realize the benefits of what had been set in motion: Jefferson’s commissioning of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lincoln’s founding of the National Academy of Sciences, Teddy Roosevelt’s dedication to the national parks, Eisenhower’s establishment of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Kennedy’s advancement of the space program, Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Carter’s commitment to addressing the energy crisis, and H.W. Bush’s reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.
Alongside these achievements, it is also important to acknowledge that each of these presidents was a product of the age in which he lived and made other decisions that would not meet today’s standards for being grounded in science.
Jefferson, for example, died before the term “scientist” had even been invented and, more importantly, held antiquated beliefs about race that he and others of his generation incorrectly grounded in science. During the Cold War’s early years, Eisenhower’s scapegoating of Robert Oppenheimer, a result of the McCarthyism scourge, caused many scientists to fear their political beliefs would be used against them and could hurt their scientific careers. And Nixon’s landmark signing of the Clean Air Act stands in stark contrast to his vetoing of the Clean Water Act — for political reasons rather than for a lack of support for its previsions.
How we, as individuals, assess the good and the bad and choose which of these presidents is the “most” driven by science is largely the result of our own values: the cultural groups we grew up in; the communities that forged our understanding of science; our personal experiences with research, policy, and advocacy; and the principles we live by.
We invite you to share, in the comments, which president you would nominate and why. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I will share my favorite nominee, too: Lincoln.
As one of the UCS researchers who worked on this project, I spent some time looking at the legacies of all our nominees. I did not have a favorite going in and will celebrate whoever wins our challenge. However, Lincoln stands out to me as the president who most understood the big-picture value of our nation’s knowledge resources.
In an 1858 lecture on discoveries and inventions, Lincoln talks about human ingenuity — our ability as a species to develop empirical knowledge, to innovate, and to improve our condition. But our greatest invention, he says, is not the wheel or the windmill or the steam engine but:
“Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions.”
Perhaps more than any other president among our nominees, Lincoln left a legacy of his own writings that has helped generations of Americans — including today’s leaders — embrace the full breadth of humanity’s knowledge resources and think through the difficult decisions we have faced in a nation that still is, in some ways, a “house divided.”
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