When you’re watching Steven Spielberg’s terrific new movie Lincoln, remember that this was the same Congress that passed the Morrill Act and created the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Although many of them clearly harbored deeply racist beliefs and were not above narrowly self-interested politicking, they were also capable of tackling profound questions of human rights and the growing importance of science and education. Even in the midst of a battle for the nation’s survival, they were able to look beyond their current situation and maintain an ambitious vision of the future.
The contrast to today’s Congress is painful to see. It required an enormous effort to postpone the crisis that was created by its own decision a few months earlier to construct a fiscal cliff. And when members of Congress should be turning their attention to a long-term fiscal plan that balances government income, entitlements, and discretionary spending, we are likely instead to be subjected to a pointless debate about the debt ceiling in which our elected leaders ponder the difficult question of whether the nation should pay the bills it has already incurred.
Still, we should temper our praise for 19th century wisdom. As historian Daniel Kevles reveals in his enlightening article in this issue, the creation of the NAS did not mark the beginning of an enlightened age. Many members of Congress gleefully mocked the notion that scientific eggheads could provide practical guidance on important political questions, and many people preferred to be guided by what they wished to be true rather than what evidence and analysis indicated was reality. This archetypal drama has played out many times in the past 150 years, and it will certainly provide rueful entertainment in the future.
What is remarkable, nevertheless, is that the United States created an institution designed to incorporate scientific knowledge into government decisionmaking. And in spite of waves of reaction against specific scientific findings and an ever-present strain of anti-intellectualism, or at least anti-elitism, in the American character, the influence of the scientific community and of the NAS has grown. It certainly helps that science and technology have contributed to stunning advances in public health and economic productivity, but it also matters that some scientists, engineers, and physicians have accepted the responsibility to play a role in public debates and to accept roles of national leadership.
The NAS will be holding many commemorative events this year, and Daniel Kevles and others will be completing a history of the institution. This history includes much to be proud of, but we should also take this opportunity to learn from experience. The institution itself has grown, expanding from science to include engineering, medicine, and the social sciences. As science and technology have become increasingly prominent components of modern life, the scientific community has begun to understand how its members must also become more fully integrated into all aspects of civic life. No doubt there are other lessons we have learned and need to learn. Let’s make this year of celebration also a year of contemplation.