An Independence Day Tribute to Science and Democracy: Eight Great Quotes by U.S. Presidents

, former analyst, Center for Science & Democracy | July 3, 2013, 2:11 pm EDT
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Admittedly, not every American president is remembered for his eloquence. More than a few, however, have spoken insightfully and inspiringly about the inseparable relationship between science and our democracy. From George Washington to Barack Obama, in the words of both Republicans and Democrats, our presidents express continuity in their thinking about the essential role of science in American society.

Below are 8 of my favorite quotes and why I think each one is important. I invite you to share your favorite patriotic quotes about science and democracy in the comments:

8)           Love of liberty means the guarding of every resource that makes freedom possible—from the sanctity of our families and the wealth of our soil to the genius of our scientists.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, “First Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1953.

Ike knew the meaning and value of our nation’s knowledge resources. During those early years of the Cold War, staying on the cutting edge of science had very real consequences if America was to retain its global standing and commitment to democracy.

7)           “The Government has the clear responsibility to weigh the importance of large-scale experiments to the advance of knowledge or to national security against the possibility of adverse and destructive effects. The scientific community must assist the Government in arriving at rational judgments and interpreting these issues to the public.” John F. Kennedy, “Science as a Guide of Public Policy.” Address at the Anniversary Convocation of the National Academy of Sciences. Washington, D.C. October 22, 1963.

man on the moon from nasaOK, so what if Kennedy quipped in the same speech, ““Every time you scientists make a major invention, we politicians have to invent a new institution to cope with it”? His point was that our nation needs science, and science needs the support of our government. Kennedy also underscores how science alone is not enough. We need scientists to be good citizens, too—to engage with and advise policymakers on the decisions arising from their discoveries.

6)           “The remarkable thing is that although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does.” Ronald Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation on the Federal Role in Scientific Research April 2, 1988.

Even though Reagan believed strongly in smaller government, he also recognized the value of governmental support for basic research—and the importance of basic research for our continuing vitality a nation. Giving examples in this speech from physics, biotechnology, medicine, computing, and aerospace science, Reagan calls funding for basic research “an indispensable investment in America’s future.” Let’s hope that today in 2013, 25 years after Reagan gave this speech, we can continue to find ways to invest in basic research.

5)            “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists […] do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” Barack Obama, “Signing of Stem Cell Executive Order and Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum.” March 9, 2009.

Whatever you may think of President Obama or his actions relative to his words, the idea expressed here about protecting free inquiry is as American as apple pie and traces back to the Founding Fathers. As a self-governing nation, we the people need access to factual information in order to make good decisions. Access to the facts is the foundation of our freedom, and we need our scientists to be free to provide us with the information that arises from their research.

4)           “In assuming her station among the civilized nations of the earth it would seem that our country had contracted the engagement to contribute her share of mind, of labor, and of expense to the improvement of those parts of knowledge which lie beyond the reach of individual acquisition, and particularly to geographical and astronomical science. Looking back to the history only of the half century since the declaration of our independence, and observing the generous emulation with which the Governments of France, Great Britain, and Russia have devoted the genius, the intelligence, the treasures of their respective nations to the common improvement of the species in these branches of science, is it not incumbent upon us to inquire whether we are not bound by obligations of a high and honorable character to contribute our portion of energy and exertion to the common stock?” John Quincy Adams, First Annual Message. December 6, 1825.

Don’t be put off by Adams’ verbosity. In a nutshell, he is saying that the United States needs to step up to the scientific plate. Back in 1825, before the word “scientist” had even been invented, Adams recognized that if America wanted to claim a place among the “civilized nations” of the world, we would need to support science. While Adams was writing almost 200 years ago, it is a sentiment well worth reminding ourselves of today, as we grapple with budget woes and the effects of the sequester. Can we fulfill those democratic “obligations” Adams speaks of? Can we afford not to?

3)           “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end by establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.”  Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Ferris, Timothy. The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010. Page 102

Jefferson expresses optimism in his analogy likening our nation to an unfolding science experiment. But this is not an experiment that can end, really. Proving his hypothesis—that we will succeed as a self-governing nation—requires continuous validation through the ongoing practice of self-governance.  The only way the “experiment” ends is if we fail. Let us not betray Jefferson’s trust in our capacity for reason and truth.

2)           “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” James Madison. Epilogue: Securing the Republic. Chapter 18.

Madison rocks!! That is all. Go read the quote again. Madison wouldn’t know what “rocks” means, but he’d ask questions and figure it out. We need the tools to do that, too. In today’s world, access to “popular information” means transparency. It means public access to information—this kind and this kind. It means education. It means science literacy, effective science communication, and scientists engaging with policy makers and fellow citizens every chance they get.

1)           “Now and in the years ahead, we need, more than anything else, the honest and uncompromising common sense of science. Science means a method of thought. That method is characterized by open-mindedness, honesty, perseverance, and, above all, by an unflinching passion for knowledge and truth. When more of the peoples of the world have learned the ways of thought of the scientist, we shall have better reason to expect lasting peace and a fuller life for all.” Harry S. Truman, “Address to the Centennial Anniversary AAAS Annual Meeting (1948)”

What I like about Truman’s message is its democratizing spirit. Truman is saying that you don’t have to be a scientist in order to think like one.  And he is saying that those qualities—those habits of mind—that bring us greater scientific knowledge are the same that bring us greater peace and prosperity.

To life, liberty, and the pursuit of science!







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