U.S. Presidents & Science: A Retrospective

By Christina P. Hooton

Actions taken by U.S. presidents in recognition of science’s impact both nationally and globally is a theme that can be traced back to the country’s origin. In fact, the founders wrote the nation’s patent system into the very first article of the U.S. Constitution with a mission “to promote science and the useful arts.”

From challenging scientists to explore the farthest reaches of the universe to establishing groundbreaking laws and critical agencies, we’re looking back at some of the ways just a few of the past presidents, at the time this article was written, leveraged science during their tenures.

Establishing a Young Nation

John Adams – Public Health

One of the earliest U.S. presidents showed his appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge by writing public support of science and the arts into the Massachusetts Constitution. Additionally, President Adams proposed the establishment of the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, which still exists today as an independent research center. Perhaps one of his most lasting contributions, though, is signing into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen. This authorized the creation of a government-operated Marine Hospital Service, one of the first public health institutions of its kind and one that led the way for the present-day Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other federal health programs. Today, the NIH is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world.

Abraham Lincoln — Science Education

A need emerged for accessible higher education and training after the Industrial Revolution. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which paved the way for creating a system of land-grant colleges and universities. These institutions were to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture and science. Some of the first institutions to carry this designation were Kansas State University, Iowa State University, and Rutgers University. In 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed and led to the establishment of 19 historically Black colleges and universities, including Alabama A&M University and Tuskegee University. The program was expanded again in 1994 to include tribal colleges and universities. Today, there are over 112 land-grant institutions.

Inspiring Innovation

Franklin D. Roosevelt — Government-Funded Research

It took nearly three decades to establish the United States’ role in cancer research. The National Cancer Act of 1937, signed into law by President Roosevelt, led to the creation of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and was the first time Congress provided funding for a non-communicable disease. Exactly 20 years later, the first malignancy was cured with chemotherapy at the NCI. Today, it is still the federal agency responsible for conducting research and training on the cause, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. The Institute also assists with and promotes cancer research and training at other public and private institutions, supporting 71 NCI-designated cancer centers, 5,000 grantees, and 2,500 clinical trial sites.

Dwight D. Eisenhower — DARPA

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, ushering in a new era of space exploration. Wishing to “prevent technological surprise” in the future, President Eisenhower created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) get off the ground and went on to perform many other research projects, including ARPANET, an experimental computer network that was a precursor to the internet. Still in existence today, its mission is to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.

John F. Kennedy — Moon Landing

Building on the progress of his predecessor and in response to further pressure from Soviet Union achievements, President Kennedy asked Congress for an additional $7 to $9 billion over a five-year period for Project Mercury, the space program initiated by President Eisenhower. He also set the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the 1960s. Although his dream wasn’t realized until after his death, President Kennedy’s leadership inspired an array of people — from aerospace engineers to production workers — and set the stage for a number of successful space expeditions, including one giant leap for mankind with Apollo 11.

Looking to the Future

Richard Nixon – Environmental Legislation

By the late 1960s, the environmental decay that naturalists had warned about was coming to fruition. Smog filled the air and pollutants traversed waterways. President Nixon signed into law a slew of environmental bills during his time in office, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. He also proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, a move he hoped would further shrink the federal government through consolidation of various offices.

George H.W. Bush — Clean Air Act

In 1990 President Bush made amendments to the Clean Air Act established by President Nixon. At this point, scientists had linked acid rain to coal-fired power plants. Prior bills had been introduced to address the issue but failed because they would have required, at great cost, for every coal-fired plant to meet pollution limits based on uniform clean-up technologies. Instead, President Bush proposed a bill that would take a “cap and trade” approach. In this scenario, a pollution “budget” cap is set, and pollution permits are sold and traded between power plants. Low-cost pollution reducers would make the most cuts and sell their permits to high-cost reducers. His bill gained bipartisan support and proved even more effective than many of its proponents had anticipated, achieving greater reductions in pollution than regulations required and doing so at lower costs than had been estimated, according to Harvard Law School’s CleanLaw Podcast article “What Environmental Protection Owes George H.W. Bush” by Joe Goffman.

"The Precision Medicine Initiative aims to improve disease treatments by tailoring them to the unique characteristics of each individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle."

Barack Obama — Medical Initiatives

In addition to furthering the work of his predecessors in curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, President Obama proposed and implemented initiatives for emerging medical technologies. The BRAIN (Brain Research Through Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative is meant to revolutionize understanding of the human brain. The Precision Medicine Initiative aims to improve disease treatments by tailoring them to the unique characteristics of each individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle. To further this work, the All of Us research program seeks to build a diverse health database with the help of one million U.S. citizens.

As we look back at U.S. history, it is clear that the ideals of scientific exploration and innovation are intertwined with the nation’s evolution.

We hope you enjoyed this journey through time — and sometimes space — as much as we did!

Christina P. Hooton is a Fisher Scientific staff writer.


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