federal funding, cultural cost

the risky implications of a scientific-technological elite

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address is best remembered for its dire warning about the dangers of a “military-industrial complex.” Another famous presidential farewell address, delivered by George Washington in 1796, cautioned against the formation of political parties. Although these warnings have faded with time, they nonetheless persist in the memory and subconscious of the American people. However, Eisenhower delivered a third, largely forgotten warning: He foretold of an emerging “scientific-technological elite.” In his words:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research…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.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Though fifty years have passed, it’s possible his words will sound eerily familiar to those of us at Brown, as we interact with or even identify as the scientists, professors, researchers, public officials, politicians, and even students that make the backbone of the scientific-technological elite.

Thus, President Eisenhower’s words are worth revisiting in our modern times. Currently, the United States spends about 3.5 percent of our yearly GDP on the military and only 2.5 percent on higher education. Comparing higher education and the military is challenging for many reasons, mostly because education is financed through a complex combination of federal, state, local, and private funds. Conversely, the military is overwhelmingly funded by the federal government.

Despite these difficult considerations, Eisenhower’s point remains: Higher education, scientific research, public policy, government, and money are now permanently wed. This is a cause of concern. Institutions of higher education, including Brown University, are increasingly becoming part of this complex web. Proof of this relationship with the government, and the continued cultivation of a scientific-technological elite, becomes clear under closer consideration. In the 2017 fiscal year, 19 percent of Brown’s revenue was derived from grants and contracts, with the only larger source of income being tuition.

These government grants often appear benign. Take, for example, the $9.8 million given to study “the role of rogue DNA elements as a molecular mechanism that may undermine health during aging.” Or the $1.8 million given to the study of “the molecular mechanisms by which alcohol co-opts the brain’s natural reward-related memory circuitry to produce alcohol cravings.” On the surface, they appear to be little more than grants going towards the pursuit of science, but they in fact fund scientific studies that are used to inform technocratic government policies. For example, the government clearly has a policy interest in giving Brown $2 million for a “study of why college students engage in the risky behavior of simultaneous alcohol and marijuana use,” or the $1.6 million given to study “whether Medicaid expansion has helped to reduce racial disparities in care for end-stage renal disease.” These are public problems that politicians, who are accountable to their constituents, must solve. By bringing Brown into the process, the government makes Brown complicit in government decisions that are based on our research.  

While this may not seem explicitly harmful, we must remember that Brown is not a government agency, and that government agencies are not institutions of higher learning. If government-funded research at Brown is used to inform government policy, the University is complicit in the policy making process. We would no longer be an institution of higher learning, but rather an organ of government.

One of the most jarring examples occurred in 2009, under the newly passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Through this act, Brown was awarded $33 million in federal funding, comprised of 47 individual research grants. This was part of the stimulus package designed to pull America out of the Great Recession. However, Brown’s endowment in 2009, during the worst year of the recession, was still a staggering $2.2 billion. As many sectors of American industry as well as many American families faced the prospect of bankruptcy, Brown remained fiscally healthy, continuing to pull in large sums of government aid. To understand the power of this money, approximately 22 percent of all federal funds in 2009 spent in Rhode Island went to research and development. During this time of economic crisis, one would have expected that federal funds would be siphoned to those in need rather than research, yet the coffers of the scientific-technological elite continued to receive substantial funds.

As we examine these crucial revenue streams for Brown, it is best to reflect on Eisenhower’s warning. Government grants, while appearing innocuous in isolation, fit into a larger picture—non-governmental institutions of higher learning increasingly act as de facto government bureaucracies, isolated from the will of the people.

The marriage between government and universities extends still further. Perhaps most alarming, Brown assists in forming what Eisenhower feared—the creation of a permanent, entrenched scientific-technological elite. Many graduates of Brown go on to be major influencers in government, policy, and research. About a third of all Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet for many civil service jobs, a bachelor’s degree is required to advance past GS-5 positions, which are rather low in the hierarchy of federal employment. Most members of Congress and senior Cabinet-level officials not only have advanced degrees, but advanced degrees from America’s most prestigious institutions. In other words, tomorrow’s scientific-technological elite now conduct government-funded research under the supervision of today’s government-employed elites. This process ensures the new intellectual class is here to stay.

Thoughtful critics will point out that if a permanent scientific-technological elite indeed emerges from places like Brown, it is not inherently harmful to our country, especially if the research and government grants are being used to advance society. But if the current relationship is followed to its natural conclusion, we will become a society governed not by laws written by elected officials, but by public policy that strays further from the democratic process. The need for public input and acceptance will be replaced with research papers and data, cultivated at elite institutions and implemented by officials. Government of the people, by the people, for the people will cease to exist. In its place will be a network of America’s top academics and scientists, clustered in universities and public agencies.

To get a sense of how inaccessible government is in some regions of America, one need look no further than my home, Elk County, Pennsylvania. Culturally Appalachian but with a Rust Belt economy, 36 percent of its economy is devoted to manufacturing, with another 24 percent lying in trade, transportation, or utilities. Less than one percent of the economy is derived from government. Saint Marys Area School District, where I went to school, serves as another powerful comparison. The district of 2,200 students has a 2018 budget of $36,283,000, but only $527,000 of it came from federal sources—in other words, only 1.5 percent of the school’s budget comes from federal dollars, which equates to $240 per student. To many Americans, the government remains somewhat of a distant mystery, and the idea of multimillion-dollar government grants are a foreign concept.

It is worthwhile to cast a critical eye on Brown and ourselves. Are we indeed complicit in this evergrowing relationship between elite institutions, government, money, and public policy? My own involvement with the Watson Institute would suggest so.

Evidence of my ascent into this entrenched elite is already present. As part of my studies at the Watson, I am to complete a three-month consultancy with an organization that is involved with some manner of public policy. I contacted my hometown’s mayor to inquire if I could conduct my consultancy with the city government. He and the city manager expressed great interest in the possibility, but something came across as concerning: Not only were they interested in having me work for the city for three months, they also hoped this would create an enduring relationship with Brown, and indirectly, government money. The irony is clear—this opportunity was only made possible by my newly minted elite credentials. My community has shrunk in recent decades and continues to struggle in the aftermath of the recession. Part of its future rests on gaining legitimacy in the eyes of Brown and card-carrying members of the scientific-technological elite like myself.

If we now ask what may be done, I’m afraid I do not have the answer. I myself am captive to the very forces Eisenhower predicted. My education, like that of most students, is at least partially dependent on the ever-steady flow of research sanctioned and funded by the government. We, as individuals and as a university, may finally have to confront this relationship. By illuminating this phenomenon with a critical eye and a clear mind, we may begin the process of freeing ourselves from the continual influence of government money.

President Eisenhower held institutions such as Brown in high regard and viewed universities as the historical “fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery.” He understood that their success in this role rested upon their economic freedom. But until Brown exercises a willingness to find alternative funding sources, we will remain unfree. Yet perhaps with a little more sunlight our chains will begin to erode, and in our liberation, we may pursue knowledge of our own choosing.