Science, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Constitution

Yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives made headlines by reading aloud the Constitution, or at least most of it, and by announcing that henceforth the House will require written justification of the Constitutional basis for every bill that members submit. The idea is that the Founding Fathers had a minimalist vision of government function, while government in recent years has become too expansive.

A great opportunity for all of us to rethink or ask anew: What is the Constitutional basis for federal funding of scientific research?

Many people appeal to Article 1, Section 8, which includes among Congressional powers the power to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” but this clause goes on to add “…by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries.” Clearly this calls more for patent and copyright protection than research support per se.

The National Science Foundation was established in 1950 by public law 89-507, which frames the mission of NSF as follows: To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…. Here the argument appears to blend Article 1, Section 8 with broader Constitutional purposes.

 This gets much closer to the heart of the issue, doesn’t it? So let’s give a fresh look to the Preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

 Wow.

In the fast-paced, rapidly changing world of 2011, science looks not just helpful but essential to these aims. Promote the general welfare? As in grow the economy, provide fulfilling, high-paying jobs, protect the environment and ecosystems? We’re not going to accomplish this without science and engineering to create and refine new products and services and keep us competitive in the world marketplace, or without adding to our knowledge and understanding how biodiversity, ecosystems, and humanity interact. Promote common defense and secure the blessings of liberty? Our small population (300 million) cannot maintain a strong international leadership role in a much larger world of seven billion people without the force multipliers that an edge in science and technology provide. More importantly, as any member of the armed forces can tell us, military conflict should only be a last resort. Physical and social science and technology are vital to creating the economic and environmental conditions worldwide needed for geopolitical stability – to head off conflict, versus merely win it. And to accomplish all this not only for the present generation, but also for posterity? To be sustainable? Science holds the keys.

NSF funds much but not all of the basic research in the United States. What about the Constitutional justification for the remainder? A little more investigation shows similar rationale for the basic research done at NIH, NASA, and DoD-DARPA. In addition, the general national aspirations captured in the preamble also justify the mission-oriented research of agencies including but not limited to USDA, NOAA, NIST, EPA, DoE, USGS and other Interior agencies, DHS, and so on. Public safety in the face of hazards; adequate food supply; secure and ample water resources; clean, cheap energy; breathable air – all these goals and many more require an ever-stronger foundation of knowledge and understanding.

So far, so good.

But here’s a concluding thought. For much of the past 50-60 years, U.S. scientists have operated under an extraordinary social contract, one that explicitly states science has the best chance of supporting national goals and priorities when it is unfettered, when it is motivated by bench-level-scientist perceptions of opportunity as opposed to top-down, command-and-control approaches, or any temptation to try to pick winners in advance. But even though this social contract was forged during the Cold War, a period in history that seemed challenging at the time, the stresses on the United States didn’t begin to approach those of today.

Political leaders and scientists alike should find this sobering, for reasons that are in part similar and at the same time somewhat different.

Political leaders recognize that in the current atmosphere of fiscal exigency and partisan wrangling, support for science will be an ongoing challenge rather a short-term problem readily resolved. It will require the best of their character, courage, responsibility, integrity, and, yes, their good nature, to continue and augment science, to provide needed oversight, without smothering the needed creativity and innovation  [Writing in the Washington Post, George Will touched on some of these points this past Sunday.]

Scientists, too will be asked to be strong, brave, responsible, and good-willed. They for their part, must keep in the forefront of their thinking that free rein for science does not mean freedom from responsibility. Public support for basic science or mission-related science is not an entitlement! The goal is still the resulting benefit to the American people (and the world’s peoples by extension of the phrases relating to domestic tranquility, defence, and liberty; Americans cannot achieve these aims in isolation). Scientists would do well to consider frequently and with some degree of self-discipline the potential benefits (or possible risks) that might result from their work.

Francis Bacon, a natural philosopher, captured this magnificently some four hundred years ago – well before the writing of the Constitution, and in time to influence the Founding Fathers. In his Great Instauration of 1620 he said,

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

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