Can Mars Save American Science From American Politics?

03/30/2012 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2012
  • Jonathan D. Moreno Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Without a strong science base no nation can claim a leadership role in the modern world. But new evidence indicates that support for science in America is in trouble; therefore, so is the country's potential for a new American century.

The findings of a recent survey confirm the argument of my book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, that America has entered a new and unprecedented era of politicized science. University of North Carolina health services researcher Gordon Gauchat has found that trust in science among American conservatives has plummeted since 1974. The issues that divide us are familiar. Among them are planetary and human origins, climate change and the remarkable advances of the new biology.

Importantly, Gauchat found that the lost confidence is found not only among self-identified conservatives with less education, but among "high information" conservatives as well. This result undermines the notion that the more people know about science, the more they trust its conclusions. In fact, as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, people tend to select data that support their prior belief preferences. In his survey Gauchat found that more sophisticated conservatives appreciated the threats to their values posed by science (e.g., intensified government regulation) more than those who were less educated.

As Gauchat observes, if this trend persists the implications for science institutions could be dire. Both public funding of basic research and the use of evidence in policymaking are threatened by politicized science. Citing Chris Mooney's theory that the change in public attitudes began in the Reagan era and intensified under George W. Bush, Gauchat observes that until then most people identified science with the space race and moon landing, triumphs that gave science great cultural authority across the ideological spectrum. Indeed, as I've argued, historically American science policy has been closely aligned with the civic narrative of progress and the pushing back of frontiers: where Americans saw new worlds to conquer they've been enthusiastic about pioneering technologies: the telegraph, transcontinental railroad, telephone, vaccines, organ transplants, information technologies and spacecraft.

The obituary of the American frontier has been prematurely written before, starting at least with Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis" of 1893. But with the close of the continent, the rise of China, and the uncertain future of space exploration it is hard to see where the next American frontier will lie. Well-intended but unsexy abstractions drawing on the "Sputnik" analogy, like energy independence, have not gotten modern Americans' blood flowing.

And as science has become specialized it is harder to find an Edison or a Salk who inspires with a personal story. Post-Vietnam America allows for little heroic mythologizing, even of revered technology leaders like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

To make matters worse, in recent decades "experts" have come to be seen (and in fact often are) in charge of public policy. This is partly a result of the fact that modern society is so complicated and so dependent on science-based technologies that expertise is required to run them as never before. But conservatives who worry about threats to traditional values and encroaching government harbor doubts about the motivations and moral compass of scientists. Gauchat's results square with those of the sociologist John Evans, who finds that it is not science in general or even the scientific method that is the ultimate object of mistrust, but rather scientists themselves.

The grounds for mistrust of science are found in the DNA of the Enlightenment itself. Francis Bacon is often credited as the first to articulate the modern idea of science, distinguishing between basic and applied research. In Bacon's 17th century utopian tale The New Atlantis, the governors of Bensalem are scientists. But, as one of them explains to the shipwrecked visitors, not all of their knowledge is generally shared: "And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometime to the State, and some not."

What is to be done? One answer is to change the conversation. The focus needs to be placed on what Bacon referred to as the fruits of science that can help achieve Enlightenment goals of human flourishing, the same goals that the American founders saw as keys to the prosperity of the new nation.

Another answer is to emphasize the activities of scientists that are publicly observable, concrete and transparent, activities that are often under the heading of engineering. This answer argues that, instead of looking to the space program as an analogy, we should focus on the modern version of the program itself. A manned Mars landing is controversial among many progressives and is far more difficult to achieve in every sense than many of us used to believe, but the implications of such a national commitment may redeem scientists themselves in all sorts of secondary ways.

As is well known, funding for NASA's manned Mars mission has taken a hit in the 2012 budget. In truth, I have not been an advocate of a human mission. The risks to a human crew are (pun intended) astronomical and the benefits to scientific knowledge modest compared to a robotic mission. But there are some experiments that machines alone probably can't do. And for a unified sense of national purpose, especially rescuing the public profile of scientists, there may be no other solution.

Of course, the financial obstacles are also extreme, especially in the current fiscal environment, when there are so many pressing human needs back on Earth. But for the future of America's commitment to science, one that will eventually lift all boats, the manned Mars mission might appeal to another traditional American principle: pragmatism.