|Jonathan F. Fanton|
Since its beginning in 1780, the Academy has been more than an honorary society. Our founders, John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin among them, believed the new nation would need leaders from all disciplines and professions to work together to build and sustain a democratic society. The Academy’s charter embodied these beliefs. As our founders wrote, the “end and design of the institution is to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”
Over the last 237 years, Academy members have addressed issues critical to the health of our nation and larger world. In the early years, members formed a committee to promote improvements to agricultural practices and another group to investigate proposed methods of desalination. Members corresponded with Noah Webster on early drafts of his series on letters and grammar for schoolchildren. And members were at the forefront of research on the effects of lightning and new advances in lightning rods to protect America’s buildings and the people who lived and worked inside them.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, as the nation tackled challenging issues and opportunities, Academy members made important scientific and technological advances as they focused on promoting “useful” knowledge. Members formed a committee to study meteorological observations and in 1843 raised funds to gift a telescope to Harvard University. This committee also led a collaboration with the American Philosophical Society to encourage the federal government to support North American Meteorological observations. In 1858, another group of members facilitated what were perhaps the best publicized debates on Charles Darwin’s then-controversial theory of evolution. And as the century drew to a close, the Academy used its decades-old Rumford Prize to support Thomas Edison’s path-breaking research.
As conflict gripped the world in the opening decades of the twentieth century, Academy members debated how the First World War might affect attitudes toward science, and discussed controversial topics such as the formation of the League of Nations. They also held a special meeting about the effects of flash and sound on American forces in France, and funded research to advance magnification for anti-aircraft guns. Amid the economic turmoil of the 1930s, the Academy published a study on the underlying sources of American discontent. And during the Second World War members held discussions and published reports on postwar problems, including ambitious topics like “technology and human relations.”
As America’s leadership assumed greater importance in the aftermath of that war, Academy members created new frameworks in search of global security and stability. Since 1958, the Academy has undertaken more than twenty projects related to arms control and nonproliferation. And members have also been engaged in other pressing matters. In the 1960s, for example, the Academy published two highly regarded issues of Dædalus on the problems facing African Americans in American society. And in the 1980s the Academy began the Fundamentalism Project to study movements of religious reaction in the twentieth century. The project inspired several scholarly volumes and books and a series of documentary film and radio programs.
The vitality of the Academy’s studies and publications reflects the interests and concerns of our members. Their passion, the contribution of their time and expertise, and their instinct for issues immediate and over the horizon that matter to the health of our nation, and to human kind, have shaped our agenda. That the Academy has so often spoken to critical issues owes to the breadth and diversity of our membership, our culture of open discussion, and the collective wisdom of members who care deeply about the common good.
It is perhaps not surprising then that the Academy’s current studies reflect the concerns our members feel about the state of American democracy. Central to the health of any democracy is a well-informed population engaged in the responsibility of self-governance. To that end, the Academy has put forward three projects that collectively address the need for Americans to respect evidence and participate actively in the democratic process.
First, the Public Face of Science project, led by Richard Meserve and Geneva Overholser, explores how the public builds trust or mistrust in science and evidence, more broadly. The role of the media is central to the inquiry, which will also study how agreement among scientists about an issue can evolve into a public consensus.
Second, a new project, made possible by a generous gift from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, will consider how to strengthen the practice of citizenship in the United States. Our aim is to better understand how to prepare people for citizenship, how people are engaged in their communities, and what it means to be a “good citizen” in our American democracy, especially at a time when social media have altered the contours of community interaction.
Third, the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, led by Michael S. McPherson and Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., will highlight the role colleges and universities play in preparing people of all ages and backgrounds to be informed, active, and empathetic citizens. These institutions can inspire among their students a spirit of inclusion and a respect for difference that will only grow in importance over the course of this century. By 2060, the United States Census Bureau reports that no racial or ethnic group will have a majority share of the total population.
In addition to these three projects, Academy meetings across the country have addressed topics of pressing concern, for example, in San Diego on Global Warming: Current Science, Future Policy; in Chicago on Communicating Scientific Facts in an Age of Uncertainty; and in New Haven on Courts and Law in the New Administration. Here in Cambridge, at the House of the Academy, our 2017 Distinguished Morton L. Mandel Annual Public Lecture featured a panel on Ethics and the Global War on Terror.
In 1958, Academy President Kirtley Mather reflected on the mission of the Academy. What, he asked, defined the members’ sense of common purpose, fellowship, and spirit of community? Ultimately, Mather observed: “No matter how far apart the search for knowledge and understanding may take the devotees of that search, they may be brought back together again by the unifying purpose of contributing to human welfare.”
Indeed, our unifying purpose, that of contributing to human welfare, is the same today as it has been since the beginning of the Academy in 1780. Let us continue to work together, across disciplines and professions, to fulfill that worthy vision of our founders.