Sixty-one years ago, just before leaving office, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell address. The most remembered and oft-quoted sentence of that address was an admonition:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
I remember the phrase “military-industrial complex” as a big thing in the sixties. Through that lens, wars were not fought for reasons of compelling national interest, they were fought to enrich defense contractors. It became a convenient trope to the protest culture of the sixties, framing everything from environmental degradation (enriching chemical companies) to public health (enriching pharmaceutical companies) to automobile safety (enriching automobile companies). In all its forms, the innumerable “etc-industrial complexes” were the leavening for protest and political activism, all variations on the same theme: an unseemly and closed relationship of government with favored businesses, the interests of ordinary people be damned.
Eisenhower had a deeper point, though, sometimes forgotten. It wasn’t just a cabal of military and defense contractors that worried Eisenhower; it was that an emerging “scientific-technological elite,” propped up by burgeoning public spending, would come to dominate, not serve, public policy. The deepening penetration of government funding into the sciences would similarly undermine the value of the sciences. Speaking of the ”technological revolution” then ongoing, Eisenhower wrote:
research has become central . . . more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
. . . the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. . .
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Just one year later, recognizing Eisenhower’s warning of the corrupting influence of growing federal support of research universities, Senator William Fulbright began to speak of the “military-industrial-academic complex.” Fulbright’s concern was primarily over what he regarded as the militarization of academic research, but it’s worth remembering that Eisenhower was warning that the pursuit of federal money would prevail over the curiosity-driven search for knowledge that is the beating heart of the ethos of scientific research.
Shift now to the present day. The “scientific and technological elite” Eisenhower warned about is clearly here, deeply entrenched and wielding enormous power. David Eisenhower, currently a professor in the Annenberg School for Communications, sees the entrenched scientific elite operating in public health authorities’ intervention into civil government. They ostentatiously wear the mask of “science,” but behind that mask lurks a tangled web of collusion between government scientists, NGOs, and foreign governments, all fueled by enormous and unaccountable streams of federal cash.
The technological elites, for their part, have aggrandized such power and influence that they serve as the censorship wing of the scientific elite, and more broadly of the electoral interests of one political party over the other. The enormous federal expenditures for scientific research in the universities that worried Eisenhower in 1961 have continued to grow with nary a blip. In 1961, total federal expenditure for university research was $595 million. Presently, it is more than $50 billion. Among the items we have purchased with that largesse is a stridently politicized and partisan “science” that serves the interests of the “scientific and technological elite” rather than the dispassionate source of knowledge that we, the taxpayers who support the whole edifice, were promised.
The military-industrial complex that so worried Eisenhower has not gone away. Instead, it has morphed into a military-industrial-academic-scientific-political complex that is coming more and more to resemble the corporatism underpinning Italian fascism: a “partnership” of government, industry, and academy that puts its collective interests ahead of individuals. Eisenhower warned that the externalities of federal financial incentives could eventually destroy the ethos of the “solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop.” Despite Eisenhower’s admonition, we continue to hurtle down this highway at ever-increasing speed.
Where is the off-ramp?
Dr. J. Scott Turner is Director of the Diversity in the Sciences Project for the National Association of Scholars.
This article has been edited (2/14/22).