The Military Industrial Complex at Fifty: Is Science Society's Slave or Master?

27 January 2011 5:41 pm

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for increased government involvement in funding innovation. Participants at a recent event marking the 50th anniversary of the so-called military-industrial complex questioned whether this kind of federal involvement traps science as the slave of government. Or could this dependency itself be perpetuated by scientists with overly political goals?

This question was among many explored last week by panelists at a discussion sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes ScienceInsider, on the golden anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower's famed farewell speech. In 1961, in the grip of the Cold War, Eisenhower called to Americans to hold science in respect but to beware the "danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." In 2011, when scientists are constantly pleading for government grants while having to justify the importance of obscure, highly technical research to the taxpayer, is the opposite true?

At the same time, panelists said, scientists are increasingly called upon to serve on government task forces, write and adhere to government regulations, and provide expert opinions for competing political interests in an ever-more technical society. From that perspective, said historian and author Gregg Zachary, Eisenhower's words are "forever fresh and relevant," carrying as much meaning for us today as they did for a missile-shy nation half a century ago.

"Ike feared a military-industrial complex, but I'm not so sure he intended a blanketed indictment of science," said science journalist and author Daniel Greenberg.

Throughout Eisenhower's presidency, Greenberg said, he surrounded himself with scientists and created the President's Science Advisory Committee. The president agreed that the government should fund both academic and military science, Greenberg said, but Eisenhower also had a history of staying out of science-policy clashes such as the Oppenheimer affair, when the former Manhattan Project director was stripped of his security clearance after voicing ethical concerns over nuclear weapons.

One of Eisenhower's fears, said Zachary, was that the military-industrial complex would undermine the public's faith in science. The perception that the primary purpose of science was the manufacture of war machines, he said, was an "insidious penetration" that could come about unwittingly. Keeping a sharp distinction between science and governmental affairs would therefore be a defense of science's reputation, Zachary said. (But perhaps this wasn't clear to the academic scientists and engineers of the age, however. Following the speech, they began to cry unfair, insulted to the point that the presidential science adviser, George Kistiakowsky, felt compelled to write letters of clarification on the issue.)

Zachary addressed the double-edged sword of government-science interface: the rise of a democracy-quashing cadre of eggheads, or the suppression of technical progress by what Zachary called "an unsophisticated majority" of citizens with different priorities. The tension between science and the public has flared up in recent times, easily seen in how the appellation "elite" was used as a pejorative during recent elections. So it was not surprising that much hoopla among scientists surrounded Obama's inaugural promise to "restore science to its rightful place."

But panelists also examined whether that "rightful place" in government could overburden scientists. "Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields," said Eisenhower in a less-cited section of his speech. "Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity." Some of the panelists suggested that the days of the solitary inventor are far from gone, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos being prime examples. All the same, said William Lanouette, science policy journalist and former senior analyst at the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO), the increasing size and complexity of machines like particle accelerators and spacecraft require intense management and funding and their price increases the competition for them among scientists, no matter who pays for them. Science can get bogged down, he said, in such competition just as easily as in political fights.

So was the current commander-in-chief wise to leave this "rightful place" deliberately vague? Lanouette said that Ike's fear of scientists becoming overly involved in public policy—no matter how many Nobels or citations they may have received—is justified. When scientific projects become earmarked by Congress, abuse can breed, he suggested. He cited reports by GAO showing cases where peer review is bypassed and poorly managed scientific projects are prioritized if there is a political advantage to funding them. "If Congress wants a project, for jobs or another end, no amount of persuasive evidence matters," he said.

One emergent difference between today and the 1950s, said Daniel Sarewitz of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University, Tempe, was the realization that a science establishment created by elites would essentially require elites to manage it as well. The further science affects society, he said, the more far-reaching that science-industrial complex becomes, encompassing agriculture, transportation, and even Earth itself. (Geoengineering and other climate science issues tend to bring this matter to the fore.) Each of these new opportunities, however, brings a new chance to fail: in disasters such as Deepwater Horizon, there are always elites to blame. Moreover, he added, today we have not an elite, but plural elites: experts to be mobilized for competing political interests. (Two modern examples might be fuel sources or when life begins.) "Partisan nastiness and scientific elite are not incompatible," Sarewitz said.

An audience member suggested that Americans could and should take a cue from China, which has experienced an exponential increase in the number and influence of "elites" since 1960; many top Chinese leaders are engineers. Another discussed the definition of the military-industrial complex, suggesting that such companies as Google could fall under this definition as its cameras could be used for surveillance. Where pure science ends and military applications begin—and which technologies should be shared with other governments—the panelists concluded, is a difficult question best addressed by remaining aware of balance in science and government.

"In Washington," Lanouette said, quoting Winston Churchill, "scientists should be kept on tap, not on top."