Hansen on Pres. Eisenhower and his scientists

John Rigdon in the June 2007 Physics Today has a fascinating article on “Eisenhower, scientists, and Sputnik.” Here are James Hansen’s comments on the article:

President Eisenhower was arguably the last United States President to seek and value advice of scientists. As discussed by John Rigdon in June 2007 Physics Today, scientists played important roles in the World Wars, but they did not have substantial access to and influence upon policymakers. The brief window of influence under Eisenhower was in the wake of Sputnik, being preconditioned by Eisenhower’s tenure as President of Columbia University, where he grew to respect I.I. Rabi. Following Sputnik, Eisenhower established the President’s Science Advisory Committee with Rabi as chairman.

Rigdon describes a conversation of James Killian with Eisenhower in Walter Reed Hospital shortly before Eisenhower’s death, with the former President surrounded by instruments relevant to cardiac care, and his heartbeats visible on an oscilloscope. Eisenhower asked about “my scientists” and said “You know, Jim, this bunch of scientists was one of the few groups that I encountered in Washington who seemed to be there to help the country and not to help themselves.”

Rigdon is probably right about the lack of substantial influence of scientists on national policymakers today. Congress does not call on the National Academy of Sciences for broad assessment on how to deal with global climate change, nor does the President call on a Science Advisory Committee. Unless the public becomes sufficiently concerned to demand otherwise, it seems that special interests will continue to have undue sway in energy/climate policies.


One Response to Hansen on Pres. Eisenhower and his scientists

  1. john says:


    Great post. I especially liked the Eisenhower quote about scientists being the only group in Washington there to help the country.

    I believe scientists have to become far more active, at a time when science is being ignored. A recent article — also by Hansen entitled Scientific Reticence addresses the issue quite nicely. Hansen notes that sea level rises could be far more severe, and come sooner, than IPCC forecasts suggest. Most scientists agree — no knock on the IPCC, but they shut-off reviews as of December 2005, and they run a consensus process — this means they were working with dated data and they applied a process that is inherently conservative, so it’s no wonder it’s outdated and understated.

    If scientists can’t get no respect, then they have to start demanding it. They must become adept at communicating in lay terms the threats we face, because no one else will.