Federal Control of Science

19 August 2008

Earlier today I was reading President Eisenhower’s farewell speech, in which he warns against control of government by the military-industrial complex. It’s chilling to read, especially in view of its absolute control over the policies of President Bush.

In the same speech, Eisenhower warned about the control of science by the government. Here are his words:

“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government. Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Ike foresaw exactly what science has become today. Colleges and universities have funded not only their research, but the growth of their faculty, using federal grant money. Today the NIH wants investigators to work on problems that the government believes are important, not those of interest to the investigator. There is no way out of this conundrum because the research establishment has grown too large to be supported by universities. Consequently the path of science is being increasingly dictated by the government – federal dollars have become a substitute for intellectual curiosity. We have ignored the power of money, as Ike warned us.