A Surge Toward a New “Scientific-Technological Elite”?

AEI’s Steve Hayward, in his article “Power Surge,” presents what he says is an innovative solution to foreign oil dependence and global warming: pump huge sums of government money into energy innovation through corporate-university-government partnerships:

While the details may vary, the consensus is clear: America should create a national network of decentralized energy innovation institutes — whether we call them Energy Discovery Innovation Institutes or the National Institutes of Energy or something else — that can bring corporate, university, and government scientists together to tackle big energy problems, while strengthening diverse, regional clean technology clusters. Modeled after sustained federal investments made in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s that assisted the rise of Silicon Valley, this effort would cost about $5 billion annually.

As a political historian, Hayward undoubtedly is familiar with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address on January 17, 1961, where he warned against the power of the military-industrial complex: “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” he said.

Perhaps Hayward has forgotten that Eisenhower — in that same speech — also warned against the dangers of government research funding in universities and the creation of a new scientific-technological elite:

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. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

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.

Hayward’s short paper is a synopsis of a report, “Post-Partisan Power,” co-authored by Hayward, Mark Muro of Brookings, and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute.