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A Cold War theory for why scientists and the government have become so estranged

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These are dark times for science — or at least that’s what we keep hearing. President Trump is pushing to slash research budgets. Republicans in Congress are harassing climate scientists. Vaccine skeptics are clogging the airwaves.

Indeed, a big reason why tens of thousands of scientists rallied in cities around the country last weekend was to counter what they see as “anti-science” attitudes taking hold in the United States — particularly in the US government. The March for Science, according to organizer Jonathan Berman, a biology postdoc at the University of Texas Health Science Center, sent “the message that we need to have decisions being made based on a thoughtful evaluation of evidence.”

But this raises the obvious question: Was the United States ever pro-science? Was there a golden age? And if so, why were things so different then? What’s changed?

One of the more compelling responses I’ve seen to this question can be found in this 2008 paper by W. Henry Lambright, a political scientist at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. To simplify a bit, he argues that the glory days of US science were an artifact of the Cold War and the arms race against the Soviet Union. That era has long faded, but if scientists want to bring about a new golden age, they should study that history closely. Because it contains some valuable lessons about how politics drives public attitudes toward science — and not, as is often assumed, the other way around.

Politicians and scientists don’t naturally get along. The Cold War changed that.

When I called Lambright to talk about the politics of science in America, he started off with a simple but provocative point: There’s no inherent reason why scientists and politicians should get along. “There’s just not a natural alignment between the two communities,” he said.

Politicians, after all, have a very different job than scientists. At least ideally, scientists seek only to uncover objective truths about the world. They follow a strict methodology, explicitly meant to filter out values, biases, or preconceptions that might color their research. Politicians, by contrast, must grapple with conflicting values and interests. Adjudicating those disputes is the whole job, and most such disputes can’t be resolved by scientific facts alone. So, not surprisingly, the two communities don’t always see eye to eye.

During World War II, circumstances conspired to push the two camps into alignment. New science-based weapons — most famously the atomic bomb — aided the US in the war. Afterward, Vannevar Bush, the wartime science leader, convinced Congress that all those technological advances they admired so much were made possible by foundational scientific research conducted long before the war. If policymakers wanted to see more such advances, they should fund more basic research and stay out of scientists’ way.

Vannevar Bush, without whom no oversimplified history of American science is complete.
(Wikimedia Commons)

The relationship between government and scientists became even warmer during the Cold War, particularly after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Nervous US politicians turned to scientists to help them win the space race. The White House, for the first time, appointed a presidential science adviser. “Not only was there a huge increase in funding of basic research,” Lambright writes, “but also scientists held influence in the corridors of Washington power as never before.”

It’s important to be clear on what motivated this warmer relationship. It was not politicians embracing the principles of objective scientific inquiry. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans had rallied around a larger common purpose — defeating the Soviet Union — and realized they needed scientists’ help in order to achieve that goal. Politics drove science’s golden age, not the other way around.

But as the perceived Soviet threat subsided, the relationship between scientists and the US government began to fray. After the US sent people to the moon, NASA’s budget began to plummet. President Nixon abolished the White House’s scientific advisory positions in 1973 when scientists began opposing some of his policies (though Nixon also founded the Environmental Protection Agency; life is complicated). The Vietnam War eroded public trust in “experts.” Presidents Ford and Carter boosted federal spending on energy research to combat the oil crises of the 1970s — a new common threat — but once the price spikes abated, so did the funds.

When the Cold War finally ended, scientists struggled to regain the prestige they once enjoyed in Washington. In 1993, Congress zeroed out funds for the Superconducting Super Collider, a groundbreaking but not intuitively useful particle accelerator — something that would have been unthinkable five years earlier. The Clinton administration only managed to salvage the International Space Station by justifying the mission in new geopolitical terms: It would usher in a new era of cooperation with Russia.

The idea “that progress in science and progress in society went hand in hand,” Lambright wrote in his paper, “was no longer accepted without question.”

At the same time, the scientific community was becoming increasingly embroiled in bitter political disputes. Some of the key research fields of the 1980s and ’90s — think climate change or stem cell research — conflicted sharply with the priorities of industry groups, social conservatives, and the Republican Party. Tensions boiled over under George W. Bush, whose administration clashed again and again with climate scientists, going so far as to suppress warnings from government researchers.

When President Obama entered office, he tried to mend this rift and champion the interests of scientists from the White House. But that clearly didn’t solve the underlying structural issue — as evidenced by, well, the rise of Donald Trump. In recent decades, we have seen an upswing in political movements, particularly on the right, eager to attack the scientific establishment. Trump and his allies now feel comfortable openly shunning scientists and academics.

“The relationship between scientists and government is arguably at a low point today,” Lambright says. “But that’s the culmination of a trend that had been building for some time. The Cold War aligned the interests of science and most politicians. Once that was gone, it became harder and harder to keep that alignment going.”

Is there anything that can bring back science’s glory days?

The Carrizo Plain National Monument
A hopeful metaphor, perhaps?
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Today, of course, “science” has become a hotly contested partisan issue. It’s tempting to say that this is because liberals are “pro-science” and conservatives are “anti-science,” but things are a bit more nuanced than that. Hardly any conservatives are “anti-science” as a general stance. You won’t find a single Republican who disputes, say, the underlying physics that enables airplanes to fly. And public confidence in science writ large has remained remarkably stable for decades.

Instead, politicians are most often hostile toward particular scientific findings or communities that tell them things in conflict with their values and interests. The obvious example is climate change: If global warming really is a massive and urgent threat, then it likely requires big-government solutions that entail serious pain for GOP constituencies like coal miners or fossil fuel producers. That’s tough to accept, and triggers fierce skepticism. It’s notable that studies have found conservatives are far more likely to endorse climate science if told there are ready technological fixes that won’t require extensive regulations.

For Democrats, on the other hand, tackling climate change fits in neatly with their values. The issue, as currently conceived, demands international cooperation, proactive government action, and aid to poorer communities. Liberals can embrace computer models of global warming without tossing aside everything they hold dear. (By contrast, left-leaning groups are more willing to dismiss scientific evidence when it does clash with their values — witness opposition to genetically modified foods.)

Many climate scientists believe that if they can just get people to grasp the science of global warming, support for climate action will inevitably follow. But the history of the Cold War suggests that the reverse is closer to the mark — the politics needs to shift first, and then support for science will follow.

“The type of extensive public support for science we’ve been discussing has historically been driven by something bigger, a common purpose,” says Lambright. “The Cold War was that common purpose. [In my 2008 paper,] I argued that climate change might one day play a similar role. You could imagine a time when it becomes so widely obvious and tangible that this is a threat that people feel they need scientists’ help deal with it.”

That certainly won’t be as straightforward as the Cold War was. Climate change is very different from Sputnik or a nuclear-armed rival. It’s not an easily visible threat that instills gut-level terror in people; polls show that most Americans don’t think global warming will harm them personally. It’s possible that future natural disasters will make climate change feel so urgent that large majorities demand drastic action. Or maybe changes in technology will lead the way — if renewable energy keeps growing and coal keeps dying, that could shift the underlying politics.

“But that public consensus won’t solely be driven by scientists,” Lambright says. “It may have to be driven by external events, or by politicians who are leading on the issue. They’ll have to connect it to issues that people care about, like national security or economic security. And it may take some time.”

None of this is to let Trump off the hook. When he implies that global warming is a hoax, he is flatly and unambiguously wrong, he is doing real damage to public discourse, and scientists are correct to call him out on it. But it does suggest that bridging the broader divide that’s opened up between science and society will require far more than scientific education alone.

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