8 Science-Friendly Presidents in Honor of Presidents Day: Vote for Your Favorite

, , former analyst, Center for Science & Democracy | February 14, 2014, 3:13 pm EDT
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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.”


JFK speaking at Rice University in 1962 about the rationale for going to the moon: “there is a new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” Photo: NASA.

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

teddy roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, ca. 1906. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-107389 DLC.

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.

Transmitting legacies

LOC Lincoln as science

Edwin H. Blashfield’s mural in the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room depicts the world’s great civilizations and their contributions. America represents science, and the figure here is said to be inspired by Lincoln. Photo: LOC.

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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  • Joanne look

    I agree with many of the comments made concerning Jimmy Carter, he was ahead of his time and if he had been reelected we would be farther ahead in clean energy. The powers of fossil fuels corporations have held real progress back for far too long, we are in danger of the end of life on earth, the earth will recover, but it is already too late for many species which are being killed off by our pollution and climate. When even the deniers have been convinced it will be far too late.

  • Bob Smythe

    Your poll has stacked the deck by omitting numerous relevant achievements of presidents: e.g., you fail to point out that Carter resolved the issue of what to do with federal lands in Alaska by achieving the establishment of numerous new National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and wilderness areas and giving new authority to the native alaskan corporations.

    Also, while richard Nixon did sign the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law, it was not his initiative, he didn’t understand its implications, and the only time he met with the members he appointed was when the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)was first established. After that his White House staff generally opposed new environmental initiatives. When Carter was elected, he issued five environmental executive orders, including the one that directed CEQ to prepre and issue binding Regulations for implementing NEPA, which are still in effect today and which have been widely emulated by governments around the world.

    • Admittedly, we couldn’t include all the relevant achievements of all the nominees, given space constraints for the design of the contest. But that is why we appreciate all the comments here!

      Your points about Carter and Nixon are well taken. On Nixon, you raise an issue an earlier commenter also raised, which is to what degree some of these policies are the result of the political environment in which the presidents were making their decisions. Should Nixon not get credit for NEPA because it was not his initiative? Or, put another way, is it less meaningful or important in its impact than it would be if he had had a stronger environmental vision?

      I haven’t entirely made up my mind on these questions and would love to hear more about what others think.

  • Charles N. King

    I voted for Theodore Roosevelt against James Carter because I felt Mr. Roosevelt was a Progresive in voting for conservation. But I felt the contest was unfair because Mr. Carter also had an equally good scientific record because he supported alternative sources of energy such as sun and wi nd energy. Unfortunately all dthis was shut down by his predecessor Reagan.

    • Given how much Roosevelt and Carter both supported conservation, I wonder what Roosevelt’s views on wind and solar would have been if the need to address energy were the kind of key issue in his day as it later became in Carter’s.

  • Theodore Roosevelt also:
    1) strengthened the establishment of scientific forestry through Gifford Pinchot and Pinchot’s building the US Forest Service;
    2) generally, through Pinchot and probably others, continued and stregthened science in government following what John Wesley Powell had begun in the USGS, anthropology and Smithsonian circa 1875-90; and
    3) with Pincho and, especially, WJ McGee, TR called the national conservation conference (May 1908) and nation-wide study of natural resources (June-Dec. 1908, pub. March 1909).

    • While I voted for Teddy Roosevelt as the most science-oriented President, he, like Jefferson, had a serious downside, i.e. the racist, empire-building in the Philippines that led to the death of some 300,000 Filipinos. I think Carter would have achieved the most if he had won a second term.

  • Robin

    In my lifetime Carter, and over all Washington/Lincoln/FDR

    • Washington, of course, did a great deal for expanding agricultural knowledge. As you can imagine, we had a really hard time narrowing the bracket to just eight.

    • FDR has been overlooked. His Tennessee Valley Authority, public works projects, and labor reforms (end of child labor, reduced workweek, workplace health and safety) were science-based. I think the same could be said about his economic and fiscal reforms which were effective in stabilizing the country and reviving industrial production. The Social Security Act saved many elders from poverty and its related health issues. The Housing Act attacked the slums which were breeding grounds for disease and crime.

      We overlook the so-called “soft” sciences like sociology and economics because they are more imperfect. However, we can see their impact. When FDR’s banking reform act, Glass-Steagall, was rescinded in the late 1990s, banks began financial risk-taking that led to the Great Recession of our day.

  • Richard Nixon gave us the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Look where science has taken us with those. Jimmy Carter, too, because he was always coming up with new wilderness areas and protections of indispensable natural areas and taught us to put on a sweater if we got cold. It’s a toss up.

    • Interestingly, while Nixon did give us the Clean Air Act, he actually vetoed the Clean Water Act, although he often gets credit for it. Congress overrode the veto, and Nixon did support it in large measure but did not support its cost.

  • Alán Alán Apurim

    . . . Although I agree very much with Michael Rice’s assessment above, I am compelled to expand the list to include Presidential candidates (many of whom today are unelectable under our money = votes system). The one above all in a “real plus would-be” U.S. Presidents list who is outstanding is the 2008 and 2012 candidate Harry Braun, who is the founder, CEO, and senior scientist of the Phoenix Project Foundation & Political Action Committee, and who for over 30 years has served as an Advisory Board Member of the the International Association for Hydrogen Energy (IAHE.org). It is the world’s largest hydrogen scientific and engineering society, and has thousands of PhD-level members worldwide.
    . . . Access and evaluate his political and ecological wisdom through links at http://PhoenixProject.net … Braun deserves at least an “honorable mention” in this vote!

    • Appreciate the HT to a very science-friendly “almost-presidnet.” We had a very hard time narrowing the list of presidents alone to just eight, but you’re absoultely right that there are people who’ve come close to the presidency (candidates, VPs, key administration officials) who deserve some credit. Maybe next year, we’ll do an “almost-president” version of the brackets!

  • Hannah Blakeman

    Carter is my favorite. He had the foresight to see where we were heading with the energy situation. If we had listened we probably wouldn’t have the mess we have today.

    • It’s great to see that Carter has so many fans! So far, he’s leading Lincoln in the second round of bracket voting, and we could well end up with a final showdown between Carter and Teddy Roosevelt.

  • Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts — it’s great to read the different perspectives!

  • i liked Jimmy Carter because he warned of our addiction to oil,and installed solar panels on the white house.

  • Teresa

    Jefferson…he was a scientist himself. And the Lewis & Clark expedition was partly scientific. There was no reason Lewis had to be on the journey to collect samples or describe the new species he found, other than Jefferson’s natural inclination towards science.

  • Michael Rice

    I do not like this poll because of it conflates presidential “achievements” (which are the combined result of history and politics) with individual stature as scientists. As to achievements in science-related policy, I would rank Theodore Roosevelt’s national parks and Nixon’s Environmental Policy Act at the top, with Roosevelt having the edge since it reflects more directly on him personally and the EPA on the times and the political air. In regard to scientific stature, Jefferson is unquestionably at the top (despite his blindness on race), with Carter (who understood and acted on scientific implications better than anyone else on the list) a runner-up. Insofar as UCS is most concerned that presidential initiatives be based on scientific reality rather than political self-interest (Nixon) or personal attachment (Roosevelt), I would vote CARTER.