History of Environmental Policies & Influence of Science on Politics

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Science wins the War and Enters the World of Politics

The history of science policy in the United States begins with WWII. Prior to the second war, science wasn’t a large issue within government. The only governmental institutions that existed to promote and regulate science was the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of Agriculture. Before the 1940s, all scientific promotion and regulation was handled by outside organizations, such as the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Then came World War Two. To promote the development of scientific capabilities, FDR issued an executive order creating the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). At its head was the pioneer of science policy and the first presidential advisor on science and technology, Vannevar Bush. Under his leadership and a practically limitless fund, the OSRD helped put together some of the first large, publicly supported scientific projects, including research on radar, weapons, early-warning detection systems, and, of course, the atomic bomb.

When the war was over it was declared that science had won the war. But Vannevar Bush did not want to end there. In an influential document, called Science, The Endless Frontier, he argued that the same ingenuity of science that won the war should and ought to be applied in peacetime, to improve our standard of living, ensure our prosperity, and garuntee our resilience against future threats.

So begins science policy, the effects of which have led directly into the environmental policies that are so important in preserving our world.

Sputnik, the Space Race, Policy Consensus

Most people who study the history of science policy deem the years 1950-mid 1960s as the “Postwar Consensus.” During this time, most policy makers and American citizens held to the belief that our economy was directly tied to our science, so science should be given free realm and support to improve our economy. The general disposition was that we should have faith in science to move us forward, with as little regulation as possible.

During this time the enthusiasm for science became a matter of national pride. At its height, this enthusiasm centered around the rivalry with the Soviet Union, which became heated after the first Soviet’s successful satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957. During this time, funding and emphasis in science and technology development was in the center of many policy decisions. It was during this time that NASA, the NSF (National Science Foundation), the NIH (National Institute of Health), and many other agencies were established to promote the sciences. The international rivarly during this time played out in all venues of science and technology, not just within the Space Race, as Americans pushed to prove that it provided better consumer products and standards of living for its citizens.

This period of almost unfettered enthusiasm for science led to the many of the practices that would later become the first targets of environmental reformers.

Silent Spring and the Rise of Environmental Movement

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the widely popular Silent Spring, an account of the harmful effects of DDT on the the eggs of birds (as well as other environmental effects). This, as well as other reports like it, launched a general outcry against the consensus that had existed in the previous two decades. People began to realize that science unrestrained left us open to incredibly harmful, if normally unintended, consequences. This fit with the general dissatisfaction with the government of the time and the opposition to the industrial-military complex, for which a lot of the top science research was conducted.

It was during this period, from the mid 1960s-1980, that there was a great deal of backstepping and policy dissarray surrounding science. While the old science enthusiasts were still around, they now faced a rising group of politicians who pushed for a more cautious view of science and technology. In 1970, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, which immediately began to regulate toxic substances and take actions to protect the nations natural resources and wildlife. During this period a whole host of new regulatory actions were put into place, from the Clean Air Act in 1966 to the Endangered Species Acts in 1966 and 1969.

Reagan’s Reversal

In 1980, Ronald Reagan came into office, marking the next era in environmental politics. Reagan brought with him a renewed optimism in science and in the free market’s ability to ensure the public’s safety. So while he encouraged and increased science funding, he loosened many of the regulations that had been put into place during the two previous decades. During this time, environmental policy was pushed beneath the surface as the Cold War neared its end.

As it stands today

The past two decades has seen a revival of much of the spirit that existed in the late 60s and 70s. Most notably, naturally, is Al Gore’s role in campagning for awareness of global warming. However, the global trends have caused a widespread concern and suspision of science, along with a renewed concern for the environment. New political motivations have surfaced that have altered the game, allowing for bipartisan interest in some environmental poicy, such as the increased concerns over foreign oil dependence. Also, with concerns over growing populations elsewhere and the threat of global warming, environmental politics has become a global issue, with large efforts like the Kyoto Protocal gaining support around the world in an effort to sustain our planet.

As we near the end of this decade environmental politics only continue to get more heated, increasingly coming to the forefront of our politics. In the past few years, many have noted that environmental policy is far more important and pressing than the government may have treated it previously. More players are getting involved in the politics, with interest groups and environmental advocates within Congress become more prevalent. It seems that we are just beginning a new period of increased regulation and policy reform, but the results of these efforts still remain to be seen.

This post is part of the series: How Environmental Policy is Made

Politics are messy but environmental danger is real. How does such an important topic get addressed without our complex and monolithic system of government? This series provides a look into the history, players, process, and problems involved in trying to enact and modify environmental policy.

  1. How Environmental Policy is Made: Introduction
  2. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 2, History of Environmental and Science Policy
  3. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 3, Key Players
  4. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 4, Process
  5. How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 5, Role Of Science
  6. How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 6, Problems and Hurdles