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Courting Science: Securing the Foundation of a Second American Century

Courting Science: Securing the Foundation of a Second American Century by Damon V. Coletta. Stanford Security Studies, 2016, 236 pp.


Courting Science? Courting science to do what? As the title indicates, USAF Academy professor Damon V. Coletta has written an interesting thought piece on the role of science in modern geopolitics—a combination of concepts not often associated with each other. As such, this work does not fit easily into disciplinary boxes; it is an effort by the author to bring US science policy into the wider frameworks of both international relations and domestic social policy.

The author posits that the US is in “hegemonic decline,” and his work investigates “whether the escape route might lay with neglected links between scientific achievement and international leadership” (p. 16). He states that a nation’s scientific advances “bring a certain respect and credibility to the state that discovers them, beyond what statesmen could expect from economic or military preponderance” (p. 16). The book, then, is what Coletta calls a re-examination of the “Scientific State.” A major part of this argument is the need to differentiate between science and technology. The author suggests a convolution of these concepts has actually contributed to America’s decline, even while the country made significant technological advances (p. 2). He dips into the literature relating to this subject, for example Robert Gilpin’s France in the Age of the Scientific State, to give a theoretical framework to his argument. In subsequent chapters, he makes the rather broad claim that in democracies “a national commitment to scientific achievement brings with it a salutary discipline, moderating popular opinion and refining political culture” (p. 63). Case studies include US-Brazilian scientific cooperation and the role of the US in understanding outer space as a global commons. Since “science” is a means for a nation to encourage both “engagement and trust,” “mutually beneficial cooperation” in space and other scientific activities “would allow American hegemony to survive a second century” (p. 131).

Certainly Coletta’s work is ambitious: to argue in an almost utopian way that science is THE solution to many of America’s current problems, and thereby science enables a “second American century” as the tile of the work indicates. Does Coletta pull this off? An old saw is that extreme claims require extreme evidence. I might add that sweeping claims also need careful definitions to be used in making those claims. In both these regards, this work could have been more detailed and explicit. As far as evidence goes, for this reviewer, it seemed the book asserted much but gave little hard evidence; the work came across as more of a philosophical discourse than a detailed argument. Also, it seems that potential counterarguments are never addressed. For example, were not Nazi Germany or Communist Soviet Union at least in some ways “scientific states”? How do they fit into this analysis of the value of scientific states? Second, the lack of precise definitions causes one to pause. For example, as important as “science” is to this thesis, Coletta never really gives a detailed definition of what he means by science. On the first page of his book, he states that “science is a method of inquiry, a practice of high culture, a human activity that cannot be cornered or harnessed entirely by any single government.” All this may be true, but it does not really give the reader a good idea of what science is and why it is something to be courted. Additionally, Coletta uses terms like “Scientific State,” “Power,” and “Truth” (with each capitalized) but never gets into the detailed explanations of these ideas as he understands them. It is assumed the reader will know what he means when he employs these terms, yet certainly terms like power and truth are problematic.

Due to complexity of Coletta’s approach and his introduction of references that many might not understand, for example “Mancur Olson’s k-Group” (p. 128), this book is certainly not light reading or for the faint of heart. It is best suited for graduate students or others deeply enmeshed in the intricacies of US science policy and its relationship to the international scene. The author is to be congratulated for taking on such an ambitious endeavor, but this reviewer remains unconvinced that science is a panacea to any problems relating to US prominence on the world stage.

Lt Col Joe Bassi, PhD, USAF, Retired


"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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