02.17.11

Innovative Chief Executives

Many U.S. presidents have promoted the “Progress of Science and the Useful Arts.”

George Washington is rightly remembered as a great statesman and soldier. But he was also a great innovator, an inventor as well as what we would call an early adopter. Washington constantly experimented on his lands at Mount Vernon, testing more than 60 different crops and a variety of conservation techniques to increase yields and sustainability. He was one of the first large farmers in Virginia to switch his main cash crop from tobacco to wheat. Washington even designed and had constructed a unique 16-sided barn for reducing the loss and improving the quality of threshed wheat: http://www.mountvernon.org/learn/explore_mv/index.cfm/sss/76/External link.

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George WashingtonLibrary of Congress

George Washington

Along with Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were all members of America's first scientific organization, the American Philosophical Society (which was organized by another statesman-scientist-founder named Benjamin Franklin). Jefferson served as its President for many years, and he made a variety of contributions, ranging from fossils found on his lands to improvements he made to the moldboard plow. And as anyone who has ever visited his home knows well, he was also an inventor; innovative clocks, devices to make copies of writings, swivel chairs and more can all be seen at Monticello. His only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, is a detailed natural history and he provided the scientific direction to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Abraham Lincoln founded the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, although he certainly had other things on his mind at the time. Perhaps even more striking, he is the only president to hold a patent (No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849). "Buoying Vessels Over Shoals," an inflatable device designed to assist boats in passing over shallow waters.

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Theodore RooseveltLibrary of Congress

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was an extraordinarily influential and highly respected naturalist, whose field work (read African Safaris) formed the foundation for the collection of the Natural History Museum in New York City.

Encouraging the growth and fostering the health of the American scientific enterprise is woven into the fabric of what is means to be a successful Chief Executive of the United States. It is also woven into the fabric of our Constitution, albeit within the powers of the legislative branch – "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;" (Article I, Sec. 8)

Whether in war or peace, virtually every President has taken seriously the requirement to see that the nation was one that was the home of scientific research and innovation. It is a role sometimes missed when tally is taken of accomplishments.

Of course, taking that responsibility seriously has meant consistent investments over many, many years. This may well be one reason the Founders made the "Progress of Science and the useful Arts" a legislative power, as that is the body from which all spending bills must originate.

Still, the way science is done today differs dramatically from that of the past. Today, scientific discovery more often than not requires large facilities and the focus of multiple disciplines to make real progress. Researchers learn from the success and failures of the past, "if I have seen further, it is because I've stood on the shoulders of giants," Isaac Newton said. Blending accumulated knowledge with the proper mix of understanding from a variety of scientific fields is now critical. A lone researcher sounding "eureka" in an empty lab is something of a romantic notion today. The complex science we look to for solutions to health, energy, and other challenges rests on sustained investments, multidisciplinary research, and most likely sophisticated machinery.

Over the years, Presidents have been supported by the legislature and the people to provide the foundations for modern science in America.

We believe The Office of Science is part of that success story. Today, the office provides 45 percent of Federal support in the physical sciences. It also supports over 27,000 Ph.D.s, graduate students, undergraduates, engineers, and support staff at more than 300 institutions, and it provides the world's largest collection of scientific user facilities to over 26,000 users each year.

Thanks to those efforts – and the taxpayers who have ultimately funded them – the Office of Science has supported research that led to over 100 Nobel Prizes during the past six decades – 22 in the past decade alone.

Today, science can still offer much to America's vigor and vitality. And America's great presidents have led the way. So as this President's Day approaches, we hope you'll join us in celebrating their many contributions to our national fabric and include in that celebration a thought about the amazing success of American science.

Jeff Salmon is the Deputy Director for Resource Management in the Office of Science. Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science.

Last modified: 3/15/2013 5:23:43 PM