Dwight D. Eisenhower: Science Research Visionary

In about 1955 or 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to Portland, Oregon for some reason or another. At that time I was attending Fernwood Grade School in NE Portland and our teacher walked us down to Sandy Blvd., where Eisenhower drove by in a convertible as he was traveling from the new airport to someplace downtown to meet with other politicians, waving to the crowd. Our teacher thought it was a great experience for us, but at that age the President was not as popular with us kids as Heck Harper, a local cowboy with a Saturday morning cartoon TV show, or Mr. Moon, who had a similar show and later got busted for being a pedophile. TV was a real fad among young Americans at that time, similar to how Twitter or iPhones are perceived today. However, some of my classmates soon began to wear “I Like Ike” pins on their shirts and most of the rest of us were kind of envious because we couldn’t afford such buttons, and because our parents didn’t have — and couldn’t give us — any.

Forty years later I finally read his “beware of the military-industrial complex” speech and came to realize it had a “Part 2”: “beware of government funded science” that really struck home with me, and explained a lot of what concerned me regarding scientific research and academic rewards at Oregon State University as I was completing my graduate research studies:

“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.

“Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

— Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address, January 17, 1961


  1. I think Ike had a point, although he seems to conflate science with technology (“inventors”) and some of his thoughts seem a little anachronistic today (blackboards instead of computers). But there are also good arguments favoring public support of research, instead of only private support, and the rationale is similar to Ike’s: avoiding the heavy hand of sponsored research. I think that John’s very succinct comparison with Ayn Rand goes to the heart of that. Here’s a perspective that makes a few points about science, scientists, and science funding that I think may be somewhat relevant. Just substitute “forest management” for “agricultural biotechnology” (and “timber sales” for “transgenic crops”) and it reads pretty smoothly. Full text and footnotes here if anyone’s interested: http://www.gknudsenlaw.com/blogs-publications-and-news/ (the article is “Where’s the beef? etc.”)

    “Controversial public policy decisions about agricultural biotechnology, whether made legislatively, administratively, or in the courts, involve evaluation of risks that are primarily understood through scientific processes and institutions. Scientific uncertainty is a transdisciplinary concept, and different disciplines contribute shades of meaning to it. Economists usually mention uncertainty in the context of risk, where risk is a product of the probability of an event occurring and the quantifiable adverse impact of that event if it occurs. If the probability of the event is neither one nor zero, there is uncertainty. In biology, uncertainty is usually associated with the unexplained processes and mechanisms (e.g., natural variation, errors in measurement, differing methodology, incomplete information) by which variability in observed phenomena arises. Such uncertainty typically is presented as confi-dence intervals, standard errors, or posterior probability distributions. As Dale Jamieson, the Director of Environmental Studies at NYU, noted, “[s]cientific uncertainty is not simply an objective value that can be reduced by science alone.” Rather, it is constructed simultaneously by both science and society, in order to serve sometimes conflicting purposes.
    Scientists philosophically celebrate uncertainty as a tool for formulation of hypotheses, often to the chagrin of legislators, regulators, and the judiciary. It sometimes seems difficult for a scientist to commit to a factual statement without adding that, on the other hand, another explanation is always a possibility. René Descartes, intellectual giant of the Enlightenment, famously declared “de omnibus dubitandum” (“doubt everything”), and that viewpoint has become the reigning methodology of scientific inquiry. The scientific ethos in which doubt and un-certainty are enthusiastically embraced does not always fit well with the adversarial nature of the decision-making process, or the role that bina-ry decisions play in environmental regulation and litigation. For that reason, science is frequently ineffective at providing solutions even to those problems with important scientific dimensions. There are so many uncertainties about both the risks and benefits of agricultural bio-technology that, much as Jamieson observed regarding the climate change debate, both biotech “hawks” and “doves” are able to claim sci-ence as an ally while simultaneously accusing their opponents of ignoring or misusing it.”

    “Thus, science plays many roles in the development, deployment, assessment, and regulation of transgenic crops. And, while the relevance of scientific input to these often controversial issues is mostly unquestioned, there is no end to arguments about what constitutes “good” science in this arena, who should be conducting the science, and who should be paying for it. Science, like all human endeavors, reflects the institutional and disciplinary biases of its practitioners. Politics and science become so intertwined that it can be impossible to separate the sci-entific questions from the political questions. With sometimes evangeli-cal fervor, the parties on both sides of the issues surrounding GM crops consistently proclaim: “Science is on our side.” Thus, science has taken on a role similar to that historically occupied by God in internecine religious wars. And, as in those religious struggles, the face of science may look quite different to those on opposite sides of the conflict.”

    “The trend towards reductionism as a dominant paradigm of science parallels what has been called the increasing corporatization of science. Susan Wright has argued that the rapidly evolving association between science and industry in the field of biotechnology radically transformed research practices and standards, such that “a turn from traditional sci-entific norms and practices toward a corporate standard took place. The dawn of synthetic biology coincided with the emergence of a new ethos, one radically shaped by commerce.” Critics of a so-called “second aca-demic revolution” contend that the integration of a mission for economic development has transformed the traditional teaching and research university into what some (including numerous enthusiastic university administrators) call the “entrepreneurial university.” The concept of the entrepreneurial university is in part an institutional reaction to ever-decreasing support for public higher education, but some observers worry that when professors in effect become entrepreneurs, whatever academic freedom and scientific authority they possess will be tarnished.

    “As an expression of neoliberalism, i.e. a market-driven approach to social and economic policy-making, the intrusion of corporate culture into the academy has the potential effect of favoring commercialization and deregulation over civic discourse and scientific integrity. The Federal Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which permits universities and other nonprofit institutions to pursue ownership of inventions derived from publicly-funded research, has been criticized for privatizing the fruits of research that should be owned by the public, as partially evidenced by the enormous increase in university patenting and licensing activities since its enactment. To the extent that a university’s interests overlap with corporate economic interests, conflicts of interest may arise that compromise the university’s independence to engage in academic research without regard to its commercial potential. This situation may damage both the quality of the research, as well as public confidence in its legitimacy.

    In the United States, the 106 publicly funded land-grant colleges and universities, many of which have a mission to focus on agricultural research and extension, are especially vulnerable to the corrosive effects of corporatization. Most university research is extramurally funded, and research faculty are under considerable pressure to bring in grant dollars to maintain their research programs. Both federal and industry funding support biotechnology research, either at the fundamental or applied level. Agricultural commodity growers’ groups contribute large amounts of money to university research, and some faculty are almost entirely dependent on commodity support for their programs. With few exceptions (e.g., organic growers’ groups, which contribute relatively small amounts to university research), commodity groups tend to be pro-biotechnology. The impression that university agricultural research is “bought and paid for” has become pervasive, and sometimes universities seem slow to recognize the problem.”

  2. My comment is sort of tangential, but relevant. I lost my job as a sawmill timber manager in 1991. Lived on savings, and withdrew. Read a whole lot. In one of those things that happens, I found myself marginally in charge of creating a small blueberry farm. One thing led to another, and I am the horticulturist, the fertilizer and spray guy. In those jobs, you depend upon “crop advisors” who are actually chemical salesmen with agronomy degrees, but sales is the primary job. That is seldom addressed. I was unhappy with berry crop nutrition programs and found myself fascinated by a paper from Mississippi State on drip irrigated tomato nutrition delivery and amounts. Which led to reading just how minerals get from the tiniest of soil particles to the root tip and into the plant via bacterial action, and how best to keep a plant growing when it wants to grow, produce flowers, and then fruit. A lot of balancing inputs and stuff I didn’t learn while getting a degree in history. But, that hadn’t stopped me from working three decades in forestry. I found myself going to seminars devoted to vineyards which were really getting sophisticated in Oregon. Lots of “woo-woo” stuff in that arena. I slogged on. I quit when I was about to turn 70. I left the owners a “farm by the numbers” handbook of all my equipment settings, spray dates, rates, and my cell phone number for an emergency. And a farm that did not use bomb making prills for fertilizer. The farm uses liquid fertilizers injected into the drip irrigation system, and not even a quarter of the nitrogen once recommended by the crop advisor/fertilizer salesmen. Twice a year random leaf analysis, and soil analysis in set plots every other year. The nutrition program is based on those numbers. No more and no less.

    So I should not come as any surprise to Ike, or Bob Zybach, the the NKP fertilizer program originated as a way to dispose of vast supplies of post war bomb and other explosives raw materials. Improved farm yields through bomb disposal. And the military industrial complex had the materials sources and just morphed easily into making prilled ferilizer pellets out of each ingredient, and over time, were able to add other “trace” minerals, all driving the fertilizer business. Using ammonium nitrate to build a bomb to blow up the Oklahoma City Federal building was no big science project. Not far from where I grew up in Corvallis, there was a plant that made “fertilizer”, putting it in sacks for explosive use in blowing stumps and rock pits. All that happens is diesel is added to the prills and to ignite the explosion, you use a few sticks of dynamite. I’ve blown hundreds of stumps that way. I unloaded a semi load of powder on a big road job the week after the powder truck blew up in Roseburg in ? 1960, on a day it was over 100 degrees out. Scared the whole time, teenage dummy that I was.

    We do have to know that using other forms of minerals in fertilization is against the grain of the big chemical providers. Organic farming is especially galling to them. Organic Farmers have lower yields yet get higher prices, most of the buying and selling outside of the chain grocery stores, stepping on toes. (My experience in investigating organic berry farming was that you didn’t make more money and had more risk, when compared to non-organic.) When we talk about using biomass to make “terra preta biochar” (a type of soil additive), you step on toes. When you use biomass to make energy you step on established multibillion dollar business toes. All that some would want to utilize or do in Federal forests is an invasion of someone else’s markets, products.

    We are governed by money which buys your Congress, or at the least, pays for its election. This deal of a sitting congressman having to raise $10,000 per day just to stay in office, campaign funds, becomes the benchmark and gatekeeper, for legislation and direction of government. Pretty much how it is right now is that unions and billionaires send their money to one party and small businesses send theirs to other. The party in power, making budgets, administering the government, directs a huge segment of what passes for science in the U.S. just by controlling the purse strings.

    DDE had it right. He was there when Russia and the US captured and kept the German bomb and rocket scientists at the end of WWII. Russia got more of them and beat us into space. Our guy, Werner Von Braun, allowed the US to soon follow. If you are really bright, the US Govt is watching you in college, at university. They are there to recruit the brightest and the best for government service. This country does not conscript scientists in the sense that a totalitarian government might. It just uses prestige and money to essentially do the same thing. That, and of course, give them the toys and playsheds in which to let their brains work to capacity, on the problems to be solved, pre- determined by the US Govt.

    Steve Jobs, when asked why he was building Apple products in China, was said to have replied “Because that is the only place we can get 35,000 engineers at one location.” Which makes me wonder if they are Apple’s engineers, or China’s engineers being trained by Apple, military applications to follow.

    • Thanks, John:

      I knew that fertilizer is used to blow stumps, but had never put them together with the “military industrial complex” before — very enlightening! I was younger than you (still am) when the Roseburg explosion took place, but these days most people have either forgotten it or never heard of it, with the exception of Douglas County old-timers. It was big news at the time and is still talked about from time to time in Roseburg today. Here is a 4-minute video of what appears to be a “home movie” projected onto a screen, taken a few days after the explosion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbFzdyrSg44

      Here is a description of “The Blast,” which took place about a month before my 11th birthday, when I was living in Baker, Oregon and following the story on our black-and-white TV and the Oregonian newspaper: http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/roseburg_blast/

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