One of the more frustrating aspects of this current election season is the disturbing willingness of both presidential candidates to conveniently set aside meaningful and timely discussions of science.
And it's not as if there isn't a lot to talk about: there's climate change, a public health crisis, a withering economy that could use a science-inspired boost, and a public eager to see a coherent vision for America's future in space.
But it hasn't always been this way. In honor of previous executives who were either scientifically-minded or simply happy to serve as cheerleaders, here are 10 of the most science-friendly presidents in U.S. history.
1. Thomas Jefferson
It's hard to imagine a U.S. president like this today: Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightenment era polymath who spoke five languages and had a keen interest in science (especially archaeology), engineering (he invented a clock that was powered by the Earth's gravitational pull on cannonballs), architecture (he designed his own mansion, Monticello), and philosophy (he was was President of the American Philosophical Society). He also founded the University of Virginia and sponsored the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the west.
2. John Quincy Adams
Known as a pre-Civil War era reformer, John Quincy Adams was responsible for modernizing the American economy and building an infrastructure to support it. To that end, he established a uniform system of weights and measures, improved the patent system, facilitated a thorough survey of the country's coasts, and was a very early advocate for science as a way to encourage the spirit of enterprise and invention in the United States. An avid astronomer, he established an astronomical observatory (what is now the U.S. Naval Observatory) and participated in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution.
3. Abraham Lincoln
Though primarily remembered for the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln also managed to sign a bill that created the National Academy of Sciences. And disillusioned with the backwardness of U.S. farming practices, he enforced scientific techniques and insights onto the agricultural industry. Driven by Malthusian fears of overpopulation and unsustainability, Lincoln saw to it that farmers were educated at government expenses, and that they would be provided with latest intelligence on farming machinery (he even predicted "self-propelled" machines), fertilizers, soil chemistry, and crop management. He is also the only president to hold a patent for his invention of a method to lift boats off sandbars and shoals. And disturbed by the country's reliance on sperm whale oil, he encouraged the development of alternative fuel sources (read more about this episode of history here).
4. James Garfield
A total math nerd, James Garfield developed a trapezoid proof of the Pythagorean theorem, a finding that saw his work published in the New England Journal of Education (given the anti-intellectual streak that runs through much of US politics today, it may be a while before another published scientist gets elected to office). And following in Lincoln's footsteps, Garfield continued to promote the idea that agricultural science should be supported by the federal government.
5. Theodore Roosevelt
The exuberant and outspoken Theodore Roosevelt will forever be known for his work as a dedicated naturalist and conservationist. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, he was quoted as saying, "Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us." Fascinated by geography and biology, Roosevelt was a published ornithologist and an avid outdoorsman. In 1891, he used the Forest Reserve Act to allocate 150 million acres of land to the public domain — an unprecedented move for a U.S. president. He also oversaw the creation of the U.S. Forest Service. After his presidency, he participated in the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition in the Amazon.
6. Franklin Roosevelt
Let's put it this way: While the Nazis were bathing in Himmlerian pseudoscience and obsessing over useless V2 rockets, Franklin Roosevelt took the hint from Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard and put together a crack team that developed the world's first atomic bomb — a scientific megaproject that changed the course of World War II and history itself. But even prior to the war, Roosevelt had already made his mark on encouraging scientific progress and environmentalism by kickstarting work on watersheds, forest conservation, agriculture, and managing the ravaging effects of the Dust Bowl.
7. Harry Truman
Working closely with the preeminent scientist Vannevar Bush, Harry Truman increased federal funding for scientific research in the immediate post-war era. His intention was to foster innovation and a more vigorous economy, a stronger national defense, and improved healthcare. In 1950, he signed a bill into law that established the National Science Foundation.
8. John F. Kennedy
In his own words:
Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding...
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
9. Jimmy Carter
Despite his Baptist background, Jimmy Carter was fascinated by science. He had a bachelor of science degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and was trained as an engineer. Looking to change NASA's megaproject mentality, Carter stated upon his presidency that, "Our space policy will become more evolutionary rather than centering around a single, massive engineering feat. Pluralistic objectives and needs of our society will set the course for future space efforts." To that end, he supported the Space Shuttle project (including the construction of four space shuttles) and supported the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1977, the twin Voyager spacecrafts carried the golden phonographs into space with a message written by the President himself. And as an inheritor of the 1970s energy crisis, he founded the U.S. Department of Energy, proposed a number of energy conservation schemes, and promoted research into alternative energy sources. Lastly, Carter had a friendship with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould in which the two of them debated the finer details of Darwinian theory (he even wrote the postscript for Gould's book, Bully for Brontosaurus).
10. Ronald Reagan
Though hardly an intellectual, Ronald Reagan was a huge fan of science, particularly space exploration. He was a cheerleader for NASA and his views often ran in conflict with those of his advisors. In addition to supporting the Space Shuttle program, Reagan approved the construction of a space station, stating that it would "permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in life saving medicines which could be manufactured only in space." And though controversial, it was his administration that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (collequially known as "Star Wars") to develop a space-based system to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack. But as the Cold War melted in the late 1980s, Reagan seriously considered working with the Soviets on a collaborative space program. Though not a fan of environmentalism (he removed Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House), he did react quickly to ban ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons when that crisis hit. And given his support for space exploration, we'll just have to conveniently forget that he was advised by his Astrology-loving wife, along with advisors who claimed that ketchup was a vegetable and that trees cause pollution (which they kind of do in a twisted sort of way).