More than even faith in the market, perhaps our most widely shared belief as Americans is our deep, almost fundamentalist commitment to the ideal of science and innovation as strengthening society and offering a more promising future. So powerful is this brand and ideal, that when Obama in his State of the Union speech tonight needed to turn to a new over-arching narrative — a grand, master metaphor that can re-cast almost every program from jobs to the role of government to education — he turned to America’s longstanding confidence and admiration in science.
Yet as much symbolic gain as Obama may generate from tonight’s State of the Union speech, there is a risk to making science and innovation the connective rhetorical tissue that links the disparate pieces of his domestic agenda. As commentators have already started to note, as uplifting as Obama’s speech was tonight — as powerful the emphasis on science and innovation was to lift both Democrats and Republicans out of their seats — the president offered no specifics on how he was going to fuel innovation and then how innovation was going to translate into concrete, short-term benefits for a diverse set of Americans.
In an era of historic hyper-partisanship, science is the one ideal that still generates bi-partisan agreement.
But as someone who has analyzed and tracked the fusion of science, communication, and politics over the past two decades, Obama’s gambit makes me deeply nervous. The risk is that as Democrats in the past have used debates such as stem cell research as wedge issues to mobilize their base and appeal to moderates, this wedge strategy has had the unintended consequence of not just fueling polarization on the issue, but actually jump starting it.
What is at stake now is not just perceptions of a single issue linked to science, but bi-partisan admiration and belief in the institution of science itself.