Over the past couple hundred years, science and democracy seemed to go hand-in-hand. Science advocates like Michael Shermer have even argued that democracy is a co-product of the intellectual openness and freedom that made modern science possible. The countries that dominate the international scientific community are (for the moment) largely democracies – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan. Overall, democracy seems to be uniquely conducive to free exchange of ideas, debate, and research latitude, all of which are necessary for science to thrive. But there’s a catch: democracy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Historians and observers like Alexis de Tocqueville have long noted that democracy works best when social conditions are relatively equal. In the 21st century, wealth inequality is skyrocketing and support for democracy is slipping even in the most advanced countries. This raises a critical question: what will the future hold for science?
Modern science is an almost incomprehensibly complex enterprise. It depends on intricate connections between researchers across the world, as well as an enormous support infrastructure of journals, peer reviewers, conferences, universities, and independent research centers (like my employer, the Center for Mind and Culture). All of this costs an incredible amount of money. Any single scientific paper might have cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time you factor in data collection, collaboration expenses, institutional overhead, and the intangible costs of the professional infrastructure – organizations, societies, oversight bodies. This enormous need for organization and investment means that, for science to function well, society has to be in good enough shape to keep funneling resources into it.
Where Does the Support for Science Come From?
In the early years of science, funding for scientific work mostly came from the pockets of the scientists themselves. Gentlemen scientists like Charles Darwin enjoyed ample independent means, which they poured into their research. Without a robust infrastructure for government or other institutional funding, science was mostly restricted to the aristocratic elite and the wealthy.
But as the turn of the 20th century approached, governments in the developed world started to dedicate more funding to science, and institutions such as universities began to lay the groundwork for science as a profession: a skilled activity that could financially support its practitioners in the same way that the other professions – law, medicine, education – could. With the development of professional science funded by governments and institutional bodies, scientists could now rise from the working class or anywhere else in society, provided they had the brains to complete a scientific education and find work.
Throughout the 20th century, this was mostly how science functioned. In the U.S., public universities in particular played an outsized role in this democratization of science, as flagship institutions like Michigan, Wisconsin, UC-Berkeley, and the University of Virginia poured public money into funding research labs, professors’ chairs, and graduate scientific education.
In a democracy, voters ultimately control the pursestrings. If you want money for a cause, you need to muster up popular support. Since funding for these universities came from popularly elected legislatures, the 20th century was a kind of golden age for democratic science. Regular voters were happy to pay for science, approving taxes to support universities and the common pursuit of knowledge. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health enjoyed ample annual funding, which they passed on to scientists in the form of research grants. If you were a professional scientist doing research at a university or institute, chances were good that your paycheck ultimately derived from the goodwill of taxpayers. Democracy supported professional science.
We Can’t Take Democratic Support for Science for Granted
But over the past couple of decades, public support for universities has declined. In some cases, it’s plummeted. My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, has lost millions in funding over the past few years thanks to state budget cuts. (The state government also eliminated standard tenure rights for professors, making it much harder to attract high-quality researchers.) Other public universities have suffered similar plunges in state support. Meanwhile, funding for NASA has been flat or declining for years, while President Trump’s original budget proposed major cuts to federal agencies that fund basic research.
This shift in government priorities couldn’t happen without changes in the way voters feel. While public attitudes toward science are still mostly positive, a yawning partisan divide in support for federal research funding has opened up between Democrats and Republicans since the early 2000s. Members of both parties expressed nearly equal support for increasing federal support for science in 2001, but by 2017 Republicans’ support was 28 points lower than Democrats. And, probably more worryingly, Republicans’ opinions about higher education have undergone a convulsive shift over the past two years: the percentage of conservatives who think colleges are good versus bad for the country has completely reversed since 2015, and a solid majority now take a dim view of higher education.
The March for Science was, in part, a response to this danger. Scientists banded together with liberals and progressives to call for better funding and more respect for science. That sounds like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the marchers were mostly preaching to the converted, since reactions to the March were divided pretty much directly by party lines: conservatives thought poorly of it, while liberals supported it.
The March for Science demonstrates that science is in real danger of becoming a tribal or partisan identifier, rather than a shared area of broad public consensus. People vote on the basis of identity and values, not self-interest. If science comes to be semantically entwined with a progressive or liberal identity, then conservatives will increasingly stop voting to support it. And since conservatives control the levers of government across the United States, this could easily lead to a plunge in basic public support for scientific research. That’s democracy, folks.
Return to Aristocratic Science?
As funding declines for organizations like NASA and public universities, the publicly funded, professional scientific corps may be in danger. While NASA has stagnated, private companies like SpaceX have come to dominate the race for the stars. What was once a shared national odyssey, willingly funded by taxpayers and assumed to benefit the common good, is now the province of tech billionaires operating on their own. This illustrates that, as democracy recedes from science, private wealth may be what rushes in to fill the gap.
But this means that the golden era of public access to science may be in trouble, too. A recent special news feature in Nature highlighted the economic and class barriers that increasingly prevent non-wealthy people from enjoying equal access to scientific careers. One of the articles in that feature bluntly asked, “Is science only for the rich?”
We’re probably not about to return to the days of gentlemen scientists, when only aristocrats could afford to pursue the scientific life. But with the collapse of broad public consensus on the value of supporting professional science, we might lose the idea of science as a viable profession for any qualified person, too.
At the same time, inequality is rising across nearly all democratic countries, affecting nearly every sphere of life, from finance to higher education. Wealth inequality makes democracy much, much harder. When people are massively unequal, they don’t feel like they all belong to the same team, and so they start withdrawing their support from public endeavors. In a dictatorship or absolute monarchy, that wouldn’t be such a threat to actual funding for science, because leaders could simply take money in taxes and give it to scientists. Getting things done in an absolutist regime doesn’t require social consensus. But getting things done in a democracy does.
Unsurprisingly, then, the uptick in inequality is bringing with it an increasing skepticism about the very value of democracy itself. Harvard researcher Yascha Mounk has warned about a possible “democratic deconsolidation” – that is, a retreat of democratic values and norms across the Western world, possibly up to the point of undermining seemingly rock-solid democratic regimes like the UK or the USA. The original modern democracies – like the United States – were notable for their lack of extreme wealth inequality when they were founded. As inequality goes up, the very social conditions that make democracy possible may be melting away.
But if this process continues, what will happen to science? Professional science advanced in part because democracies were relatively strong, socially cohesive, and willing to direct public funds to research. But now they’re weaker and less cohesive. Let’s say that the United States really does de-democratize, as many respectable journalists and academics have warned us about. A less-democratic United States might be better able to appropriate public funds and direct them toward projects of the leaders’ choosing. We might see less foot-dragging when it comes to infrastructure projects.
But Michael Shermer is probably right to argue that democracy is hard to disentangle from good science. There’s a reason why modern science only appeared on the scene after the Protestant Reformation severed the chains that kept feudal European society bound to the authority of the Catholic Church. It’s the same reason why science has tended to thrive in democratic, market-based economies but not in authoritarian or caste-based societies: science depends on independent thinking.
True, many science popularizers overstate this case. Real scientists aren’t completely anti-authoritarian. Not many biologists take trips to the Galapagos Islands to check whether Darwin got his facts right. Still, in his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote that monarchies and aristocracies “maintain citizens in a sort of lethargic slumber.” Bound by customs and traditions, locked into feudal roles they inherited at birth, subjects of aristocratic regimes don’t easily learn how to make the leaps of creative insight and or exercise the independent, critical reflection that form the foundations of modern science.
If democracy disappears, some form of institutionalized – that is, legitimized – inequality will replace it. We may be closer to that kind of phase shift in human governance than we realize. If a legitimated, postmodern feudal aristocracy were actually to arise, the problem of getting regular citizens to agree to fund and support science would disappear, but so would many of the basic social norms and foundations that make for good scientists. Science and liberal democracy are deeply entwined. If democracy totters, science will shake and tremble.