Earlier this summer, a group of Congressional representatives—led by Tim Bishop of Long Island—hosted a reception in East Hampton for a fellow congressman, Bill Foster of Illinois.
An emphasis was on how Foster is one of only three scientists in the House of Representatives. His invitation to the fundraiser was headed with, “Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?” Foster stated: “The complex economic and technological issues our nation faces today will require leaders who think through the critical issues of the day, using logic and facts rather than resorting to mindless party-line talking points...Part of that solution has to be to elect more scientists and engineers to Congress.”
A biography of Foster accompanying the invitation noted that for 22 years he worked at Fermilab and “participated in leading-edge scientific research, designed and built state-of-the-art physics experiments.” Fermilab in Illinois, with 1,750 employees, is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Considering especially the debate among Congressional representatives on climate change, science is indeed important. Foster is a Democrat, like Bishop of Southampton, and the other representatives who hosted him on June 28th, Steve Israel of Huntington on Long Island and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan. Democrats in Congress, and Democratic President Barack Obama, have been blasting Republicans in Congress who deny climate change and global warming are happening. The science on climate change and global warming is clear, they emphasize. They charge the GOPers have a politicized “anti-science” agenda.
Bishop’s Republican opponent this year, State Senator Lee Zeldin of Shirley, Long Island is holding his own fundraiser on September 8th with as his main guest former Representative Allen West of Florida, typical of those GOPers. “When asked if he felt that climate change was causing the Earth to become warmer, West responded with a firm ‘No,’” according to published reports. West is a hero of the Tea Party in which climate change denial is strong.
Yes, utilizing science rather than a dubious political line when it comes to climate change and global warming is a good thing. But, on the other hand, scientists often also have their own political agendas rooted in promoting scientific institutions and their projects. Science might be objective—but that doesn’t mean all scientists are.
Many of us are familiar with President Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell address to the nation in 1961 about the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Not widely known is that the original draft of that speech warned not just of a “military-industrial complex” but of a “military-industrial-scientific complex.” The president’s science advisor, James Killian, later president of MIT, pleaded that the word “scientific” be eliminated, and it was. Nevertheless, President Eisenhower went on warning, “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists and laboratories.” He declared that “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect…we must also be alert to the equal and opposing danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”
David E. Lilienthal, first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), used similar words in his 1963 book Change, Hope, and the Bomb. He wrote how now “scientists are ranked in platoons” and ” the independent and humble search for new truths about nature has become confused with the bureaucratic impulse to justify expenses and see that next year’s budget is bigger than last’s.” He spoke about the “elaborate and even luxurious [national] laboratories that have grown up at Oak Ridge, Argonne, Brookhaven.”
In that line he was referring to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) set up by AEC on a former Army base in Upton on Long Island and now operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
One need only examine what happened to Bishop’s predecessor in the lst Congressional District, three-term Representative Michael Forbes of Quogue, Long Island in 1999 after he challenged BNL, to see the concerns of President Eisenhower and Mr. Lilienthal playing out. Mr. Forbes was concerned about radioactive leaks from nuclear reactors at BNL and spoke out forcefully. He was opposed in a primary for the Democratic nomination by Regina Seltzer of Bellport, Long Island whose husband had been a BNL scientist. BNL personnel manned phone banks for Seltzer. She took the nomination from Forbes by 45 votes, but lost the general election. Meanwhile, a highly capable representative was driven out of Congress.
There have been many studies into scientists being influenced by ties to government and corporations and perverting their analyses.
Being anti-science, as such, is wrong. But so is having an uncritical belief in scientists