History of Geophysics Opinion

Reaffirming the Social Contract Between Science and Society

Our geosciences community too often gives the impression that we care primarily about more funding for our research. Such overt self-interest poses risks to our community and to society.


The world’s 7 billion people currently struggle to solve a high-stakes, threefold problem: satisfy a growing appetite for food, energy, water, and other resources; protect the environment; and build resilience to natural extremes. In the face of this defining challenge, our geosciences community, although well-meaning and with much to offer, too often gives the impression that we care primarily about more funding for our research.

Such overt self-interest is not merely unseemly. It poses risks to our community and to society writ large. To get back on track, we would do well to take to heart some prescient 17th-century advice.

Science to Benefit Life

Four hundred years ago, the great natural philosopher Francis Bacon was concerned not just about science but also about the social contract between scientists and the rest of the world. He wrote (F. Bacon, The Great Instauration, 1620, as quoted by Ravetz [1971]),

Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all—that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.

As the text suggests, Bacon reached two conclusions: first, that scientists should seek knowledge and understanding to benefit life and, second, that love for others should be the primary motivation, the word “charity” being the Elizabethan term for love (as exemplified in the King James Bible translation of 1 Corinthians 13, often recited at weddings).

Bacon’s thinking might strike some today as remarkable. In part that’s because the natural philosophers of his day usually enjoyed independent means. By today’s standards, we might imagine that self-funded scientists should not have to defend to anyone their interests or preferences for doing science. Similarly, the idea of high-minded love (seeking the welfare of others possibly at some cost to ourselves) holds little place in current discourse on science and public policy.

Today, by contrast, our (substantially more expensive) scientific research is funded largely by governments and therefore, indirectly, by taxpayer dollars. Much of the support comes from people far more strained financially than we are. This raises questions: Why should they pay us? Isn’t it because they hope that our labors will improve their lot in life? Don’t we owe them something? What would a fair return on society’s investment look like?

And, finally, what has been our response?

Modern Understanding Between Scientists and Society

With considerable oversimplification, the current social contract between scientists and society dates back to Vannevar Bush [Bush, 1945] and the conclusion of World War II. The United States entered the war with obsolete equipment and weapons, lagging behind the capabilities of the Axis powers in important respects. Despite this late start, the Allies ultimately claimed victory thanks in large measure to their overwhelming industrial capacity and access to natural resources and also in no small part to catch-up in technology and innovation. Examples such as radar, the atomic bomb, and penicillin come to mind. Providentially, hostilities ended before the Germans could fully capitalize on their lead in rocketry.

To address the emerging Soviet threat that would eventually lead to the Cold War, U.S. leaders demanded a broad, robust, concerted, and sustained program of research and development. They set up the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950; investments in atomic energy and in space technology (spurred by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957) followed [Doel, 2003].

The language that established NSF speaks to national goals, but scientists and political leaders quickly realized that these goals would be best achieved if scientists were allowed to decide the most promising avenues of research to be pursued, based on their intrinsic merits. For a while, the language surrounding this policy even spoke of “curiosity-driven science.” It’s as if scientists had brashly stated to the world, “give us lots of money and don’t ask too many questions, and one day you’ll be glad you did.”

Remarkably, both partners in this version of the social contract have kept up their side of the bargain, for perhaps a good half century. Working through Congress, the public has been both generous and constant with its funding, and scientists in turn have delivered a cornucopia of benefits in agriculture, energy, human health, information technology, transportation, and much more—including (close to the hearts of our Eos community) Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS). These advances have fueled economic growth, national security, and quality of life, as well as a place for the United States as the “indispensable nation” in world affairs.

Recent Stresses to the Social Contract

Stresses over the past decade or so have frayed the fabric of the social contract between scientists and society. The complexity and costs of science have been growing. Urgent societal challenges (in education, environmental protection, foreign relations, maintenance of aging critical infrastructure, national security, public health, and more) demand quick fixes even as they compete with the funding for science. Society has asked scientists for more help, even as research budgets have remained relatively constant. Relations have been strained on both sides.

How have we faced these new stresses? Unfortunately, many scientists have responded by resorting to advocacy. Worse, we’ve too often dumbed down our lobbying until it’s little more than simplistic, orchestrated, self-serving pleas for increased research funding, accompanied at times by the merest smidgen of supporting argument.

At the same time, particularly in Earth OSS, as we’ve observed and studied emerging natural resource shortages, environmental degradation, and vulnerability to hazards, we’ve allowed ourselves to turn into scolds. Worse, we’ve chosen sides politically, largely abandoning any pretense at nonpartisanship.

In this way, we’ve alienated at least half the country’s political leadership—and half the country’s population. In Earth sciences, our proposed social contract sounds dangerously close to this: “We’re in the business of documenting human failure. But lately, the speed, complexity, and magnitude of that failure has picked up—with respect to management of natural resources, environmental stewardship, and hazard risk. If our documentation is to keep pace, we need more funding.”

To a beset, struggling general public this can easily look unhelpful, even arrogant. In today’s polarized and beleaguered society, that’s dangerous.

Pressing the Reset Button

There is a way out. Here’s a starting point, gleaned from years of engaging my wife and my daughter. The latter is a child social worker, married with sons of her own. I came to her one day with some new science: “Hey honey, I’ve just learned from an article that kids need to get five encouraging words from parents for every bit of criticism.” She replied, “It’s more like ten, Dad—and adults need encouragement, too.”

Every night at home, my wife finds me doing the dishes. She sees it as helpful. But I’ve learned that by making myself useful, I’m really advocating on my behalf.

You’ve no doubt learned similar lessons at home. So how about this? As individuals and as a community, let’s listen more to the people and the political leaders who support us and spend less time up front telling them what we know. Relaying our knowledge can come later; we first need to build a bridge of trust that can carry the weight of truth.

Let’s show more gratitude for the support the public and public leaders have provided to date. Let’s thread ourselves through the whole of society, where the pressing problems are close at hand, and collaborate in their practical solution versus studying the problems at some distance and earning the derisive ivory-tower label.

Let’s do this out of a genuine, loving concern rather than as a manipulative, self-serving (and all-too-transparent) technique. We’ll not only establish a more robust, sustainable, and productive social contract going forward; we’ll set the world on a more sustainable path toward a brighter future [Hooke, 2014].

And Francis Bacon himself would be proud.


Bush, V. (1945), Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research, U.S. Gov. Print. Off., Washington, D. C.

Doel, R. (2003), Constituting the postwar Earth sciences: The military’s influence on the environmental sciences in the USA after 1945, Soc. Stud. Sci., 33(5), 635–666.

Hooke, W. (2014), Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, 272 pp., Am. Meteorol. Soc., Boston, Mass.

Ravetz, J. (1971), Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, Clarendon, Oxford, U. K.

—William Hooke, Associate Executive Director and Senior Policy Fellow, American Meteorological Society, Washington, D. C.; email: [email protected]

Citation: Hooke, W. (2015), Reaffirming the social contract between science and society, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO026333. Published on 17 March 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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