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After 50 Years, Eisenhower’s Warnings Against a Scientific Elite Still Cause Consternation

At the dawn of the scientific revolution ushered in by the Space Age, was President Dwight D. Eisenhower wary of growing government influence over science and technology, seeing a potential danger this posed to future innovation?

On the 50th anniversary of his farewell address to the nation, science policy experts attending a 18 January seminar held at AAAS headquarters said Eisenhower rattled the scientific community with his unexpected comments.



Steven Lagerfeld | Photos by Carla Schaeffer

Steven Lagerfeld, editor of the Wilson Quarterly journal and moderator of the panel sponsored by the Washington Science Policy Alliance, said just three lines in Eisenhower’s address have caused consternation and discussion among scientists for decades. There is reason to wonder how concerned the former president was about the issue since he did not even mention his warning about the overall direction of science in the United States in his memoirs, Lagerfeld said.


During the 1961 address, in which the president famously warned of the danger to the nation of a growing armaments industry referred to as a “military-industrial complex,” he included a few sentences about risks posed by a scientific-technological elite. He noted that the technological revolution of previous decades had been fed by more costly and centralized research, increasingly sponsored by the federal government.

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields… ,” Eisenhower warned. “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

While continuing to respect discovery and scientific research, he said, “We must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”


Daniel S. Greenberg

Daniel S. Greenberg, a veteran journalist and author of several books on science policy, said the warning “was regarded as a kick in the teeth by the science establishment of the day.”

“The remarks were also seen as a threat to government support of academic research,” Greenberg continued, with the U.S. National Science Foundation in its infancy and other available government funding limited.

Greenberg said one reason scientists were surprised and bothered by the remarks is that Eisenhower had been very friendly with scientists (including Isidor Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics), appeared to value their advice on many issues, and was the first president to appoint a full-time science adviser. The science adviser at the time, eminent chemist George Kistiakowsky, said in a later interview with Greenberg that when he questioned Eisenhower about the remarks, the president tried to distinguish between academic research, which he supported, and expanding research by industry and others with military implications that he felt was dangerous.

“I have no doubt that Eisenhower feared the ‘military-industrial complex,’” Greenberg said, “But I’m not sure that he intended a blanket indictment of science in his reference to the ‘scientific-technological elite’ or that he feared that federal research money would contaminate academic science.”


Gregg Pascal Zachary

Gregg Pascal Zachary, a journalist and author of an authoritative biography of Vannevar Bush, the organizer of the Manhattan Project who orchestrated the partnership between the military and science during World War II, said he thinks Eisenhower’s anxieties were genuine.

In the late 1950s, people were skeptical about science when some scientists told them not to worry about such environmental concerns as DDT use and above-ground nuclear tests, he said. This fed concerns that a science elite was driving political decisions without concern for the feelings of ordinary people.

Eisenhower was someone concerned about the conflict between the people in general and specialists, Zachary said. In his farewell address, Zachary said, the president meant that every American be alert to balance the needs of science and the public.

Zachary noted that the word “elite” has become a pejorative term and that Eisenhower’s use of it made it safe for anyone to invoke it to question those with influence and their motives.


William Lanouette

William Lanouette, a journalist and former senior analyst on science issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said that by the time Eisenhower made his speech, the shift had already been made to the government setting science policy. But scientists found they could influence policy by testifying in Washington and forming societies that could promote certain agenda.

An example of this approach is the Pugwash Conferences, first held in1957, that bring together scholars and public figures in a private setting to discuss scientific issues, exchange views, and brainstorm alternative approaches before returning to their normal jobs as advocates of certain positions, Lanouette said. The model was not marching in the streets about issues, but engaging in private conversations about them, he said.


Daniel Sarewitz

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, said Eisenhower’s statement about science in his farewell speech emphasized a concern he raised in his first inaugural address.

Reflecting on modern humanity’s power to achieve great good or inflict unprecedented evil, the new president said: “Nations amass wealth. Labor sweats to create, and turns out devices to level not only mountains but also cities. Science seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet.”

Eisenhower was concerned about a dilemma scientific and technological advances present modern society, Sarewitz said. The influence of these advances forces democratic societies to increasingly depend on a rarified elite to understand and manage the very complexity that they help to create and accelerate, he said. This is not only a problem of managing modern warfare, he said, but applies to other key technology-driven systems such as energy, agriculture and food, transportation, and communications.

“This deepening dependence on scientific-technological elites is an inescapable condition, one that knows no party or ideology,” Sarewitz said. If Eisenhower foresaw the possibility of public policy becoming the captive of an elite, Sarewitz continued, “what he appeared not to anticipate was that ‘elite’ should be plural, that there were elites to be mobilized on behalf of competing or even contradictory ideological and political goals.”