President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address is famous for his prophetic warning about the military-industrial complex: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Eisenhower’s warning is often repeated but has gone mostly ignored, as has another observation from the same speech. Warning that scientists dependent on government contracts and grants might cripple scientific breakthroughs, Eisenhower said “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Eisenhower put his warning in context: “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,” Eisenhower continued, “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.”
“Scientific research and discovery” should be held in “respect” Eisenhower said. Yet he foresaw, “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.”
Today, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is hailed as one of the world’s great leaders and “America’s doctor.” Fauci has headed the NIAID for 36 years. He controls a budget of almost $6 billion dedicated to fighting infectious diseases. He is one of the “scientific-technological elite” that Eisenhower warned against.
We don’t have to attribute nefarious motives to Dr. Fauci to object to central planning by scientific-technological elites.
In his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, Tom Bethell writes, “Government funding has… promoted the idea that a theory can be regarded as true if it enjoys enough support.” Bethell adds,
"Consensus discourages dissent, however. It is the enemy of science, just as it is the triumph of politics. A theory accepted by 99 percent of scientists may be wrong. Committees at the National Institutes of Health that decide which projects shall be funded are inevitably run by scientists who are at peace with the dominant theory."
It would be naïve to think Dr. Fauci is eager to fund approaches to COVID-19 other than his preferred vaccine solution.
Some endorse Fauci’s approach. Why not let him use his decades of accumulated wisdom to cut to the chase and save the day? Testing competing theories seems wasteful.
However, scientific breakthroughs occur when competing theories are tested. Bethell explains, “Just as a competitive market system forces innovation into private enterprise, so the competition of theories drives science to investigate new approaches.”
Socialists like Bernie Sanders, who don’t understand how competition drives innovation, argue too many brands of deodorants are wasteful. Similarly, some might believe studying non-vaccine solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic is wasteful. President Trump wants a vaccine by the end of the year. Dr. Fauci is a vaccine advocate, and so some might say let us not muddy the waters with other voices slowing down our efforts.
If you share such a mindset, you might cheer for “Operation Warp Speed.” Pause to take in Bethell’s caution: “When any single source of funding dominates, science will almost certainly become the handmaiden of politics.”
In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson describes “a paradoxical truth about innovation: good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.”
Johnson echoes Eisenhower’s wisdom: “When you don't have to ask for permission, innovation thrives.”
Research shows the most innovative entrepreneurs reached for ideas beyond their narrow field of expertise. Johnson reports, innovative entrepreneurs “borrow or co-opt new ideas from these external environments and put them to use in a new context.”
Like Eisenhower, Johnson observes, “Governments and other non-market institutions have long suffered from the innovation malaise of top-heavy bureaucracies.”
Johnson adds, “The more the government thinks of itself as an open platform instead of a centralized bureaucracy, the better it will be for all of us, citizens and activists and entrepreneurs alike.”
Today, we are a long way from the “open platform” Eisenhower, Bethell, and Johnson advocate.
At the close of his farewell address, Eisenhower imagined a time when “all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
Politicians and the scientific-technological elites may pretend otherwise, but today policy is being made based on imperfect science.
For there to be a scientific breakthrough in an uncertain environment, “respect” for dissenting voices is essential. A lack of respect for dissenting voices goes with “top-heavy bureaucracies” led by the “scientific-technological elite.”
Many people see these “elites” as heroes. Looking through Eisenhower’s lens, because they are blocking science from evolving, they are dangerous to the nation’s health.
[Image Credit: Flickr-The White House, public domain]