"History shows that much — maybe most — science is driven by political, economic, or social goals. Some of the best science in the history of our country was focused on goals that were explicitly political. Consider the Manhattan Project. During World War II, scientists mobilized to determine the details of fission reactions, isotope separation, high-temperature and high-pressure metallurgy, and many more matters for the purpose of building an atomic bomb. The political goal of stopping Adolf Hitler and the sense that the future of the world might depend on their success provided a powerful motivation to get the science right.
Or take the space program. The United States first developed advanced rocketry to threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear destruction. The political goal of “containing” Communism was a powerful motivation for scientists. In later years, the goal of maintaining peace through the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction similarly motivated scientists to ensure that the weapons they developed would go where sent, and work as advertised when they got there.
In the Apollo program, NASA scientists knew that getting the science right would not only ensure that our astronauts made it to the moon, but that they made it home again. Knowing that lives may depend on your calculations can be a powerful form of accountability.
Some might argue that these were technological, not scientific projects, but it’s a distinction without much meaning. If such projects led to new technologies, they were also founded upon newly developed science. Moreover, politics can drive good science even in the absence of technological goals.
Plate tectonics, for instance, is the unifying theory of modern earth science and it, too, was a political product. The key work that led to it came from oceanography that was part of U.S. Navy programs to develop methods of detecting Soviet submarines, while safely hiding our own. It came as well from seismology as part of a military effort to differentiate earthquakes from nuclear bomb tests. Military and political goals, in other words, led to research on the fundamental understanding of planetary processes, an understanding that, not incidentally, forms the basis for oil and gas exploration, mining and mineral exploration, and predicting seismic hazards.
Nearly all of this work was done by scientists working directly for the government, or by academics in universities and research institutions with government funds. The Manhattan Project was government science. The Apollo program was government science. Plate tectonics was government science."
- Michelle Matsumoto, The Climate Mobilization