Which Was the Most Science-Friendly President?

The Union of Concerned Scientists is running a clever Presidents’ Day contest asking which US president was the most science-friendly. The first round featured pairings between Thomas Jefferson and Jimmy Carter, Abe Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt and George H. W. Bush, and John F. Kennedy and Dick Nixon.

Lincoln emerged victorious in the first round, a result that’s eminently reasonable for all the reasons Ann Reid mentioned in her post on Lincoln. Carter inexplicably edged out Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt marched all over Bush 41 like he was San Juan Hill, and Nixon finally won an election over Kennedy.

Carter and Nixon are, I’m convinced, the wrong winners in their brackets, and I want to make sure Tricky Dick doesn’t steal another election. Teddy Roosevelt is clearly the most science-friendly of the two, and possibly in the entire contest.

Roosevelt was a consummate naturalist, a science popularizer, an acclaimed historian, and did more to protect America’s wild places than any president before or since. He commented, “almost as soon as I began to read at all I began to like to read about the natural history of beasts and birds and the more formidable or interesting reptiles and fishes.” His hunting expeditions brought back and created some of the great scientific collections in this nation.

When I visited Teddy Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill some years back, I couldn’t help noticing his much-loved copy of On the Origin of Species still preserved on his shelf. “Thank Heaven I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley,” he wrote at the end of his long and accomplished life. He correctly adduced evidence for sexual selection in aspects of natural history where leading scientists of the time saw only camouflage. He fretted, in those days before the Modern Synthesis, that “Darwin and the great scientific men of his day forced science to take an enormous stride in advance in the decades succeeding the publication of the Origin of Species, but for fifty years now we have tended to make the same mistake that the schoolmen of the Middle Ages made about Aristotle,” failing to advance the science. And his views on the relationship of science and religion were sophisticated and entirely reasonable:

The claims of certain so-called scientific men as to “science overthrowing religion” are as baseless as the fears of certain sincerely religious men on the same subject. The establishment of the doctrine of evolution in our time offers no more justification for upsetting religious beliefs than the discovery of the facts concerning the solar system a few centuries ago. Any faith sufficiently robust to stand the—surely very slight—strain of admitting that the world is not flat and does move round the sun need have no apprehensions on the score of evolution, and the materialistic scientists who gleefully hail the discovery of the principle of evolution as establishing their dreary creed might with just as much propriety rest it upon the discovery of the principle of gravity.

His love of nature was personal and passionate, and he understood that science—and nature—exist in the service of future generations, not merely as tools for our immediate benefit:

Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the “the game belongs to the people.” So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The “greatest good for the greatest number” applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.

He created not just a plethora of new parks, and strong federal agencies to protect federal lands, but also a legal framework that would allow him, and all future presidents, to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments,” protected from harm. And while the National Park Service was created later (through a bill sponsored by Science League of America board member William Kent), its charge is undeniably Rooseveltian: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” It's a marvelous legacy, and an example to other nations as they grappled with whether and how to protect their natural treasures.

Was Roosevelt more science-friendly than Lincoln? Hard to say, and I don’t know how I plan to vote when (not if) those two are paired in the last round of the UCS contest.

Lincoln’s creation of the National Academy of Sciences, establishment of the Armed Forces Pathology Center (where our own Ann Reid worked, and helped sequence the 1918 flu from 80-year-old specimens), being the only president to hold a patent, endowing the land-grant universities, and forming a federal agency to promote scientific agriculture all certainly make him a formidable contestant. Lincoln regarded the works of Darwin and other naturalists as “too heavy for an ordinary mind to digest,” but apparently chatted with the great biologist Louis Agassiz, and indicated in that conversation that the favorite lecture he ever gave was on discoveries and inventions. That's some science-friendly presidenting.

As for the other two contestants in this semi-final, I don’t believe either deserved to reach this round. Here’s a hint how Kennedy would probably have voted: in remarks at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners in 1961, he quipped of 49 Nobelists and assorted other luminaries in science and the arts who attended, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” He observed that Jefferson, “could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet. Whatever he may have lacked, if he could have had his former colleague, Mr. Franklin, here we all would have been impressed.” Jefferson established the first coastal survey, which grew to become NOAA. He was an inventor, architect and engineer, creator of one of the great universities, agronomist, and paleontologist and naturalist. His advocacy for separation of church and state serves today to ensure that evolution is taught unfettered in schools. He sent Lewis and Clark off on one of the first federally-funded biological, geographical, and geological surveys, with one of his explicit goals the hope of testing a (wrong) hypothesis about the nature of extinction. He has a giant fossil ground sloth named after him, and seems to have glimpsed hints of a grand tree of life. Whatever his many flaws as a man, as a science-friendly president it’d be hard to find his equal. (And regardless of his genuine and underappreciated accomplishments as president, I can’t fathom how Jimmy Carter got more votes.)

As for Kennedy, the Apollo space program is one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, and a scientific milestone that will probably never be forgotten. And it’s hard to think of a finer statement of the raw scientific ideal, the hunger for knowledge that drives every great scientist, or a more sensitive appreciation of the dangers of science and its capacity to bring peace, than Kennedy’s speech calling for the US to land humans on the moon:

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.…

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. … Space expenditures will soon rise some more…even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.…

However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.

One of the great barriers in science policy, often decried in sessions at the AAAS meeting I’m leaving now, is that politicians don’t want to invest in basic science, they just want a quick payoff. Kennedy’s push for a manned moon landing was unapologetic about asking the taxpayers and the Congressional appropriators to make an investment in the unknown. For that, and for actually taking humanity peacefully to the moon and establishing space as a place for peaceful collaboration and friendly rivalry rather than war, I still think he deserves to be considered among the most science-friendly presidents (unlike Nixon, whose science-friendly policies—like the creation of the EPA—were largely forced on him by Congress).

In addition, Kennedy's emphasis on space exploration gave us perhaps the most famous photograph in human history, and undoubtedly the most important environmental image: the Earthrise photograph from Apollo 8. Seeing our planet in its entirety, as a small part of a grand whole, was a rallying point for the nascent environmental movement, and was an inspiration to many a young scientist as she set out to understand our universe. 

So go vote!

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.