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Science Progress, the Phrase and the Title

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The phrase “science progress” seems redundant from one angle but highly contentious from another. The first sense reminds us that we are the inheritors of the Enlightenment’s confidence in the possibility of improving the human condition, a possibility predicated on values of individual freedom, social equality, democratic solidarity, and reason as superior to dogma. From this standpoint scientific inquiry is the paradigmatic exercise of Enlightenment values.

In another sense, though, the title of this new publication, Science Progress, is purposely argumentative. It suggests that science, both as a way of thinking and as a source of novel ideas and products, is in the main a liberating practice that enables human flourishing. This understanding of science as progressive does not deny that the power of science may be misused. Nor does it exclude the need for guidance and even regulation in the service of equality and solidarity. But it does assert that the core values of science are democratic and anti-authoritarian.

The very words “science” and “progress” came to have their modern meanings in the 19th century, and they did so right around the same time. This simultaneous semantic evolution was, of course, no accident. Microscopes and telescopes were drilling both down and up into nature, and stethoscopes revealed the body’s inner space. Systematic investigations that manipulated variables proved more revealing than mere observation. The possibilities that could emerge from human insight began to seem endless.

Science as progressive, however, boasts philosophical and political skeins stretching much further back into the American historical experience. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is often credited as the first to express the modern idea of progress in terms of advancing science and technology. And this vision was to have a profound effect on later 17th century thinkers, including those who provided the intellectual justification for the American Revolution. For all the founders’ disagreements, there was no doubt that the new nation’s promise was necessarily bound up with its innovative genius. Even those bitter rivals Jefferson and Hamilton made their own contributions: Jefferson through the patent statute that rewards inventiveness; Hamilton by laying the foundations for history’s most successful capitalist economy.

It is also no coincidence that other concepts that have been important to the way that America has come to understand itself, ideas such as the frontier and the West, demand an experimental attitude in grappling with novel challenges. Who, besides the westward settlers themselves, has come more to represent the pioneer spirit than America’s “inventors,” people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk and Bill Gates?

Even as America’s western frontier has vanished the pioneer spirit and the virtues and values associated with it continue to have a powerful hold over the American mind. Few government initiatives have been so wildly successful in capturing the public imagination as the space program of the 1960s, which resonated with the Kennedy administration’s “new frontier.” The ideas of science and progress are deeply held in America’s self-identity, pervasive in our notions of who we are, what we do and why we do it. The optimistic “can do” spirit, the approval of bigness, boldness, and adventure, the lure of “the road,” are all associated with this sensibility. At our best we hold these truths to be, if not self-evident, at least within our grasp.

And of course generations came to characterize America itself as an “experiment,” a romantic and visionary theme that comported well with the orientation of both pragmatist philosophers and early progressives. The only sure path to social and scientific advancement was seen as an iterative process of hypothesis, systematic experimentation, and data-gathering, and then reform in light of experience. That the human condition can and should be improved by any means necessary—whether through government or private enterprise or some combination of the two, but with government as the ultimate guarantor of the public interest—has come to be the essence of progressivism, but so has the need to ground such alleged improvements in the best possible evidence.

The progressive theme of history is not, however, self-evident in Western culture. The Greeks tended to think of their own time either as inferior to the mythical Golden Age or as part of a cycle of advance and decline. Imperial Romans saw themselves as in stasis since the establishment of the empire. Medieval Roman Catholic thinkers largely gave up on worldly progress in favor of spiritual improvement while awaiting Armageddon.

Neither has the conjunction of science and progress always been welcomed as an unalloyed good. Just as the words’ modern meanings were coming into consciousness there were also the first signs of alarm, in a tradition that began famously with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, continues to exert a powerful hold on popular culture, and has lately manifested itself in a conservative critique of science. Taken to an extreme, far from being a guarantor of progress (which even progressives could not reasonably assert), the potentially inhumane drift of science threatens the idea of progress itself.

One common criticism of progressive science policy is that it uncritically adopts an instrumental view of science without reflection on the goals of innovation. Although we reject the notion that a philosophy of innovation must be dumb to moral values, we appreciate that progressives have too often appeared to worship at the altar of change. Science Progress will therefore seek to compass consideration of ends as well as means.

Similarly, at the risk of invoking a hackneyed reference to spirituality, we also believe that science occupies an exalted dimension, that the growth of reliable knowledge is in effect an expansion of consciousness. Science may not be the only path to a greater grasp of reality, but it makes a unique contribution to enhanced understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. To distort the process of inquiry amounts therefore to a narrowing of vision, a corruption of imagination, and a threat to our freedom as beings endowed with intellect.

It would be disingenuous to deny that the trigger for Science Progress is the sense among many that in recent years the respect for evidence and the spirit of open inquiry has been threatened for the sake of short-term political advantage. But the larger issue is the long-term national interest, which depends on the best evidence that only science can provide for commercial innovation, economic growth, military defense and the best possible array of intelligence options.

In the 21st century, more than ever, it is no exaggeration to assert that only free and rigorous inquiry and not authoritarian dogma can provide the reliable information required for our physical survival. Perhaps most important, progress in science is essential for a continued sense of our national purpose as participants in an historic experiment in freedom and self-governance, as one people joined by a common future rather than a common past, a future we cherish for the sake of the generations of Americans to come.

The goal of Science Progress is to help identify and realize the elements of that boundless American future. We hope this goal is manifest in our statement of mission:

Science Progress proceeds from the propositions that scientific inquiry is among the finest expressions of human excellence, that it is a crucial source of human flourishing, a critical engine of economic growth, and must be dedicated to the common good. Scientific inquiry entails global responsibilities. It should lead to a more equitable, safer, and healthier future for all of humankind.


To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org