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National Academy of Sciences: Abraham Lincoln’s gift to the nation

The Presidents’ Day holiday this month celebrates the birthday of the nation’s first President, George Washington, but also of its sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln.
The latter’s legacy and importance in dealing with issues that had given rise to the Civil War was portrayed in an exhibit by the National Constitution Center, at the Johnson City Public Library, last summer.
In the journal “Science” in November, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, remembered another of Lincoln’s profound contributions to the nation. Earlier during the bloody year (1863) when he delivered his now famous Gettysburg address, he had founded the National Academy of Sciences.
The only president to hold a patent on an invention, Lincoln found naval vessels being lost in combat, early on in the war, since their iron cladding interfered with their then used compass. With great personal appreciation for science and engineering and to help solve this and future problems that can affect national security, he called on fifty distinguished researchers of his time to form the National Academy of Sciences.
Under its charter, scientists from many fields serve voluntarily, at no cost to the taxpayer. They distill and synthesize the research, from legitimate peer-reviewed scientific sources, on current-day issues of importance. As Tyson relates, they are tasked, now as in 1863, “to advise Congress and the Executive Branch of all ways the frontier of science may contribute to the health, wealth, and security of United States residents.” The Academy, as Lincoln envisioned, would help set and keep the nation on a path of scientifically enlightened governance.
Among scientific underpinnings and questions relating to issues of our time, the Academy in the 1980s studied the atmospheric pollution agents then threatening the ozone layer. President Reagan in response, as his State Department Secretary George Schultz said recently, gave support to the international treaty of Montreal that would create alternatives to the harmful chemicals and allow the ozone layer to heal.
In series of studies since then, the NAS has confirmed the reality of global warming, its largely human contribution through fossil-fuel burning, and the dire consequences if not addressed. In 2004, in response to an advisement request from President Bush, it stated that its conclusions corroborate those of the IPCC, the international body of scientists studying climate change. The President then, however, chose to withdraw the United States from the international (Kyoto) climate treaty.
As another of President Reagan’s cabinet members, William Ruckelshaus, received the presidential medal of freedom in November, he spoke out against his present-day party’s denial of climate change, in Congress and among its presidential candidates. The former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency stated that President Obama’s leadership on this issue, obstructed at every turn by the GOP, should instead “be seen as an opportunity.”
Reminding us of America’s science legacy as fostered by President Lincoln, Mr. Tyson noted that climate science today, “as we continue to warm our planet, may [also] be our only hope to save us from ourselves.”