In considering science and the polity the first point I would stress is their increasing intimacy. The advances made by science create problems that must be dealt with in their social implications by public policy. And as science reaches further into outer space or penetrates deeper into the nature of matter or probes toward the origin of life itself, we can anticipate more far-reaching consequences for society and therefore an even closer relationship between the affairs of state and those of research.

“The polity has a greater stake in the advancement of science than ever before.”

The polity has a greater stake in the advancement of science than ever before and science receives more support from the state today than in all of history. It is clear that governmental and scientific affairs are joined, for better or worse; for better, the clearer the mutual understanding between the two and on the part of the rest of society.

My thesis is that scientific advancement and democratic government are intimately related, that indeed they spring from the same human impulses, rely on many of the same social conditions, and suffer from some of the same limitations. What interdependence can we see between the culture of science and that of a democratic society? What values are common to both science and a democratic polity? Science knows no authority but the idea, the thought, the theory that holds up under scrutiny, under testing, under the replication of experiment by different experimenters or under examination by different investigators. Democracy means an open society, the give and take of debate, a readiness to experiment, to throw out one group and bring in another.

The common culture of science and democracy

Freedom of thought, trial and error, discarding theories or policies that have failed to work—this is the culture both of science and democracy. At the depth of the Depression the nation responded to a call that may be taken as one expression of an elementary scientific attitude. Said President Roosevelt: “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”1 At this point of crisis the rallying cry was not to authority nor to tradition nor to old loyalties but to experimentation. Does not this attitude reflect a continuous strand in the pattern of American culture?

On the other hand, a weakness of a democratic system is a willingness to take the comfortable course, to encourage conformity, and to seek the common denominator. But this is alien to the whole ethos of science, to its ethical demands and dedicated pursuit of truth, to cutting through to the innermost secret, of weighing to the uttermost fraction, of letting no difficulty obtrude in the search for accuracy. The ideal of modern science, like that of the highest tradition of classic art, abhors halfway measures. Perhaps the discipline most appropriate to a free society is that firmly and happily self-imposed by the scientific worker, whatever his field or his studies. Such dedication to higher standards lends strength to the whole society. Here is one important way in which the culture of science may contribute in its turn to strengthening that of democracy.

A democracy’s potentiality is as great as the released intelligence of each individual member. In my view, the ultimate justification for democracy as a political process lies in its capacity to liberate the spirit of man and to ensure freedom of thought to the end that there may be an optimum release of human intelligence.

The ethic that dictates democracy’s concern for human dignity and individual worth as ends in themselves is fortified by the democratic ideal that welcomes and nurtures individual intelligence without regard to race, class, or creed.

Functions of science and technology

“Science cannot decide policy.”

Science obviously can find no more congenial setting than an optimally functioning democracy. The function of science may be thought of as the release of energy both in the most literal sense in modem physics and also in the myriad ways by which control of nature enhances human capacities. But science cannot be expected to determine the uses to which it is put. Science cannot decide policy. For most of the problems facing the politician or the administrator, scientific thought has no relevance. Science cannot be expected to solve society’s problems unless such an expectation is based on a belief that the final answer, the definitive authority, the ultimate truth is scientific. This is a defensible philosophic position but in its premises remains an act of faith.

On the other hand, if we approach the role of science in operational or historical rather than in philosophical terms we see that science has provided not only much fundamental knowledge about the nature of the physical universe but also the means for dealing with a host of specific problems. The triumphs of the natural sciences, in order to be applied, have necessitated a division of labor. This organization of skills and resources has brought increased complexity in human and social arrangements. Take, for example, all that the advance of medical science demands in institutional forms (hospitals and laboratories), in professional training for medicine in all its branches, for nursing, hospital management, public health administration, etc. This is to mention but one example where social discipline and the rationally ordered use of human and economic resources are crucial.

Rather than to say that human engineering lags behind scientific advance, it would be more accurate to note that scientific knowledge is applied and fruitfully realized through technology only as organizational devices and administrative skills make this possible. (And should we not add—as public policy directs and as political wisdom guides?)

The individual today functions as a member of a larger and more intricate complex of relationships than did his grandfather. If such a complex is to operate effectively each individual must properly perform his distinctive, even though limited, role. In a sequence of relationships where the success of the operation depends on smooth articulation and coordinated action, individual performance has more crucial consequences than in a simpler, less closely knit situation.

In organizational terms, dependence on the individual is greater and his personal responsibility proportionately higher. It seems to me, therefore, that science and technology enhance the importance of the individual. At the same time, for each individual to understand his social role and his operational function, a more rational attitude is required; a more self-conscious awareness is demanded than in a traditional society.

“A concern with consequences, with attempts to anticipate, with prediction—this is the stuff of science.”

Those who satirize the “organization man” might more realistically compare his plight with that of the “tribal man” or the “feudal man” rather than with the individualism of a golden age that never existed. The individual can only express himself meaningfully within a coherent social setting. Organizational complexity need not threaten the integrity of the individual. It is the prevailing ethos that is significant. This means that, to fulfill his role, the citizen of a free polity needs to be aware of the consequences of his actions and beliefs. A concern with consequences, with attempts to anticipate, with prediction—this is the stuff of science.

The social sciences deal with distinctive ranges of circumstances and consequences, the natural sciences with other ranges. The whole scientific enterprise may indeed help the individual toward a fuller realization of the meaning of personal freedom, to wit, a capacity to foresee the probable consequences of one’s actions. Cooperation is based on the individual’s understanding of where he fits into the larger picture and of what his appropriate functions are as a member of the community and as a citizen. At times somewhat unrealistic views of the citizen’s part in the formulation of public policy have been expressed. For example, it has been argued by the President’s Science Advisory Committee that “A democratic citizenry today must understand science in order to have a wide and intelligent democratic participation in many national decisions.” And the report notes the “urgency of providing high-grade and plentiful adult education in science now, planned for those who are unprepared even in the fundamentals.”2

The unreality of such exhortation, if taken prima facie, is patent. It reflects not only a lapse concerning the complexity of science but also a simplistic view of democratic government. This is not the place to embark upon a description of the governmental process in the United States; it may be sufficient to note that we do not make national decisions through a town meeting, and democratic participation would long since have failed were citizens required to have informed opinions on all the multifarious public issues of which science is only one.

In a word, there is a great deal that is purely hortatory in much of the discussion about the place of science in the polity and about the political role of the scientists. But if exhortation were subtracted from political discourse, what a meager sum would remain!

Need for social self-knowledge

“The social sciences are one important means of advancing this essential social self-knowledge.”

I am not saying that the citizen must understand science or agriculture or banking or all the other substantive fields of public policy. This is obviously an impossible expectation. I am saying that the citizen needs to understand the nature of the political process and of the organizational complex of which he is a part, and that the social sciences are one important means of advancing this essential social self-knowledge. They provide the most articulate and systematic expression of this awareness. It follows then that a technologically advanced society must have an advanced social science if authoritarian controls are to be avoided.

My conclusion is not to urge as a solution to our problem either more civics courses for the citizen or more introductory science instruction for the layman. Such simple prescriptions have been offered many times. Obviously formal education for those disposed to learn is desirable. However, under conditions of freedom, required indoctrination into the meaning of science or the nature of the polity seems neither appropriate nor effective.

My view is that where both science and a democratic polity function in accord with their distinctive guiding values they create a culture that is mutually sustaining. Science and the polity must flourish together or each is endangered. The juncture of science and politics on such intimate and interdependent terms is new to our day. Of its significance we need to know much more than we do.

A disjuncture of science and society?

I would like next to consider briefly some of the interesting current commentary that stresses the disjuncture of science and society. Is science creating a chasm in the polity at the very time when mutual dependence is greatest? Some observers fear that science is too far removed from general public understanding. Others argue that scientists are unduly separated from other intellectuals.

In a brilliant article on modern science and the intellectual tradition, the physicist Gerald Holton reviews the place of science and finds that “the genuine acceptance of science as a valid part of culture is becoming less rather than more likely.”3 He analyzes the public image of science and stresses the view of the scientist as iconoclast and as the sorcerer’s apprentice. The error and injustice of these fears are disposed of with compelling logic; yet I am inclined to think that this is effort spent in breaking down an open door.

A recent careful survey of a cross-section of opinion reveals that scientists are viewed by the majority of the general public with respect. On topics that have received much publicity, such as the Salk vaccine, the average citizen is not seriously uninformed. Although, as always, the responses in an opinion survey are open to a variety of interpretations, there really seems to be no doubt of the broadly supportive public attitude. But what of the attitude of other intellectuals toward their scientific brethren? On this point Holton comes to a most arresting conclusion. He states: “By letting the intellectual remain in terrified ignorance about modern science, we have forced him into a position of tragic impotence; he is blindfold in a maze which he cannot decipher.” 4

This same theme, you may recall, has also been developed by C. P. Snow in his Rede Lecture on The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. It is Snow’s thesis that a wide gulf exists between the world of science and that of literature, the humanities, and indeed much of the academic world. He sees: “Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists.”5 I have no doubt that this polarity exists and also that a distorted image of science is held by some intellectuals and some nonintellectuals as well, but what does it amount to?

In assaying the social role of science, more significant than extremes of opinion is the nature of the middle ground between the poles. Our two witnesses are physicists (and also) widely read in the humanities. They are obviously well acquainted with the polar points in the debate. They are not, I think, sufficiently mindful of the broad range of intervening viewpoints. Certainly to understand the relations of science and the polity we must look beyond both physics and literary criticism or popular misconceptions and public images of scientists.

“But in the common pastures of academia the cleavages between the disciplines can and should be diminished.”

Here our topic begins to lose much of its drama. We note the routine activities of engineers of all kinds, of medical men and public health officials, and of the host of both technicians and scientific investigators who apply research to everyday needs. Although we can affirm that science and the polity should be all of a piece, there is no necessity, in my opinion, for insisting that the avant-garde in the arts or letters and the advance scouts on the scientific frontiers make common cause. Such conformity would weaken the relish of their prime pursuits. But in the common pastures of academia the cleavages between the disciplines, whether in physical, life, or social sciences or in the arts and humanities, can and should be diminished. Now that public authorities are giving the natural sciences support that is their just due, the offer of a helping hand to those scholarly fields that enjoy less popular recognition might well be extended.

Public policies broadening support to the higher learning generally, to education and research in all fields, will eradicate the divisions fostered among scholars by a sense of injustice and unfair discrimination. If basic research is to be supported by the government, what public agency is to declare one field of learning more basic than another?

As Holton has so eloquently written, “In the search for a new and sounder basis on which to build a stable world, science will be indispensable. We can hope to match the resources and structure of society to the needs and potentialities of people only if we know more about the inner working of man. Already science has much to say that is valuable and important about human relationships and problems.”6 And the social and behavioral sciences will have more and more to offer as basic research of high quality is fostered and opportunities for advanced training are increased.

Role of the social sciences

But the pertinent point that I wish to stress here is the way these disciplines can contribute to a better understanding of the relations between science and the government and to the range of questions illustrated by the concerns of Messrs. Snow and Holton. The social sciences occupy a very strategic place in the intellectual spectrum, between the poles of physics and the arts and literature. Some social scientists feel closer to the natural sciences and others in some of the disciplines such as history find the humanities more congenial. Within the social sciences, as a prominent sociologist points out, “The study of politics is the meeting ground for many disciplines. Indeed, in the current study of political behavior, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists seem to play as central a role as traditional political scientists.”7

In simpler times political philosophers provided interpretations concerning the individual’s relationship to the state, but we got along without systematic efforts to analyze the operations of the polity through empirical research. Now answers must be sought through further research efforts to understand such phenomena as leadership and the nature of political power, its locus and operation; the political process and the interplay of groups; citizen participation and attitudes and opinions on public issues. The two later speakers on this program8 will tell us of their research bearing on some of these topics: studies both methodologically rigorous and pertinent in substance.

The debate over the alienation of intellectuals from the scientific community or the cleavage that some observers see between both groups and the general public suggests that a well-designed opinion survey might be in order. Furthermore, the public role of scientists and the relationship of science and the polity might provide not only a fruitful topic for social science research by various disciplinary approaches but also serve to enlarge the common area of discourse between scientists and nonscientists. If the cleavage is as critical as feared, serious inquiry seems appropriate. (We do take the chance that further study, by introducing more pertinent facts, may dampen the ardor of an entertaining debate.)

Quite apart from public opinion with respect to science policy or popular misconceptions of technical fields or the attitudes of intellectuals toward scientists, there are institutional and historical factors that help to explain the role of scientists in government and the way in which they are regarded. One way to highlight such variables is to take a few of Snow’s points and ask how his allegations hold up when examined in the light of American experience.

Social science and the civil service: Contrasting experiences

For example, a striking contrast with Great Britain is to be found in the relationship of science to the higher civil service. The traditional pattern in Britain has been the recruitment of the administrative class from the outstanding college graduates frequently trained in the classics. In the United States the tradition of a classical education has never been as deeply rooted, nor is the specialization in scientific training undertaken so early.

It is usually not until students embark upon their doctorate that their attention is focused solely on their specialty. Furthermore, the most basic civil service reform in the United States resulted from the necessity for officials highly trained, for example, in geology, chemistry, forestry, demography, statistics, economics, and engineering. The spoils system could not resist the necessity for staffing our federal bureaus with technically trained specialists. Scientists have been long established in the governmental bureaucracy and widely distributed throughout the federal service.

Snow at one point declares that the “academics had nothing to do with the industrial revolution.”9 This certainly cannot be said of the American educational system, with our long-time support of colleges of agriculture and the mechanic arts. The history of our land grant institutions reveals the close tie over the decades between many aspects of scientific advance and immediate application to the agricultural revolution, and our great engineering institutes and schools of business and commerce have kept in close touch with industry. Science has always been close to the workaday world in this country; indeed criticism has often been voiced of our undue emphasis upon applied research.

Moreover, in recent debates about their appropriate role in the federal establishment, scientists have seen clearly that science is not something to be segregated in a special department. Scientific research bears a relationship to virtually all the major departments of government just as it bears on most segments of our national life. With respect to the United States I see no evidence that scientists are drawing apart; on the contrary, have they not learned to play the game of politics with skill and effectiveness?

“Non-scientists,” Snow insists, “have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition.”10 It is hard to think of evidence to sustain such a view for the United States. It is patently inapplicable when one recalls the public image represented by figures such as Detlev Bronk, Vannevar Bush, James Conant, James Killian, Isador Rabi, and Warren Weaver—to mention just a few of those whose names spring to mind. Or consider the attitude typified by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The leaders from the fields of science who have come to the fore during the last two decades have revealed not only their ability to advance scientific matters but also great capacity for seeing scientific developments in relation to national strength and welfare.

Relation of scientists and nonscientists

I doubt that the relation of scientists to nonscientists will ever be resolved by closer intellectual understanding between so-called cultures. Ours is a society of many cultures in Snow’s sense of the term because it is a pluralistic society. All elite groups in a democracy suffer on occasion from a lack of sympathetic understanding—paradoxically this may be the democratic way of expressing deference to those with power and influence. Bankers and leaders of big business can compare their well-healed scars with those of labor leaders and city bosses. Now natural scientists and social scientists alike can nurse their newly acquired bruises and realize ruefully that they too have won recognition and prestige.

“Science will have its well-wishers and its ill-wishers.”

Science will have its well-wishers and its ill-wishers just as management, labor, agriculture and all the other great forces in American life have friends and adversaries. But science, like education and health, really need fear no enemies. Rather it must learn to live with tepid supporters who are happy to enjoy its benefits but chronically unenthusiastic about paying for all they enjoy. By comparison, historically, with other potent emergent elements in American life, science enjoys an unusually favorable climate of opinion: its achievements and its further promises are both profoundly disturbing and highly inspiriting; yet its impact has not been politically divisive.

In a democratic polity powerful new tendencies in the society seek and find political expression. Before World War I when the changing position of the United States in world affairs demanded a new posture on the part of the federal government to deal with newly emerged economic and political forces, both domestic and international, Woodrow Wilson came to leadership with his conception of the New Freedom. In the opinion of one perceptive historian: “The spectacle of a professor of political science in the chair of the President of the United States was a symptom of these new tendencies in American life.” 11 Herbert Hoover as president came of that generation of engineers who likewise won recognition as top executives in industry. Modern science has arisen as a new force in American life of such strength, magnitude, and acceleration that its full portent cannot yet be clearly envisaged. Can we not expect to see a statesman elected to the presidency within the not too distant future from among leaders in the natural sciences? At the very least, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that the capacity of a presidential candidate to deal intelligently with scientists, scientific advisers, and policies heavily involving science will become a matter of increasing public concern.


“Science and the polity are not estranged if we take into account the role of scientists in public affairs.”

To summarize: insofar as the United States is concerned, science and the polity are not estranged if we take into account the role of scientists in public affairs. The enhanced role of the scientist means that he is being called upon to advise on public policy and to carry out duties of governance. Engineers, bankers, and industrialists are other specialist elite groups who in recent decades have been called upon to assume political functions. The most notable failures were those who were unaware that their new role made distinctive demands.

The scientist because of his new political importance has a greater obligation to know about the polity than do nonscientists to know about science. Science has become another of the great interest groups and in a free society has assumed a prominent place in the polity. But science is more than an interest group. It is a way of thinking, of behaving, and of evaluating.

Why has so little been done to study a subject so interesting and important? The answer is that a few research efforts have been attempted but that the subject matter is very elusive. Nor has anything like adequate attention been given to science as a social phenomenon and to its relation to the rest of society. The task is still waiting to be done. A leading sociologist or two have recognized the need; a few historians of science are now at work. Political scientists have given only the most preliminary attention to the matter. High on the agenda for political science for the next decade should be research into those conditions which will enable both democracy and science to take root and grow in the presently underdeveloped areas of the world—in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

We face a scientific revolution in a world of many cultures. We have hardly begun to visualize the magnitude of the problems and the plenitude of benefits that can ensue if research in terms of both science and the polity are advanced together. To realize this goal will call both for high scientific ability and for a capacity to understand the realities of political life and the structure of power in a diversity of nation-states. If science is to be fruitful in human terms it must play a sustaining role in the development of free polities in a variety of cultures over the world. The present “cultural divisions” here at home among intellectuals and academic specialists will then seem slight indeed as the common assault on ignorance and indifference is joined by thinking men in many nations.

This paper was given at the 127th Meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science in New York on December 27, 1960.

Pendleton Herring (1903–2004) was a member of Harvard’s government faculty and an advisor to President Roosevelt and President Truman before becoming president of the SSRC in 1948, a position that he held through 1968. Dr. Herring also served as the president and director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and as the president of the American Political Science Association.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 15, Issue 1, Part 2 in the spring of 1961. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on August 16, 2016