The Ends of Science

Published November 12, 2006

First Things (November 2006)

Whenever I meet with scientists, I’m always struck by their optimism — and their discontent.

Mostly they are optimists, excited by the latest findings: the newly isolated gene variant that may help explain schizophrenia, the new telescopic images that reveal the violent births of distant galaxies, the geochemical discoveries that may change our understanding of Earth’s formation. Armed with an endless array of PowerPoint slides, the optimists believe they are uncovering life’s secrets slice by slice, defining humanity’s place in the universe, making life better through their mastery of nature’s mechanisms. Knowledge through experiment, progress through reason: They have no doubt they are on the right side of history.

And yet, at the same time, many of these scientists seem frustrated and unhappy. Some are furious because policymakers are ignoring their advice and policing their laboratories, either directly, by trying to ban all human cloning, or indirectly, by not taking bold steps to stop global warming. Some believe that religious fundamentalists are on the march, replacing the study of Darwinian evolution with the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design. Some fear that human beings are poised to wreck nature by polluting the atmosphere or poisoning the soil. Others feel defeated by nature’s relentless brutality, by the tsunamis and earthquakes and childhood cancers that so regularly mock man’s illusions of control. “Don’t blame God,” Science magazine exhorts us. “Better planning could make natural disasters much less disastrous.” But that hardly seems to mitigate nature’s relentless indifference to humanity or the misery of mothers left to mourn the dead infants of Java Island.

Perhaps one reason the debate about embryonic stem cells has become so prominent is that it combines scientific optimism and scientific despair so completely: the optimistic search for cures, the discontent that nature yields remedies for her afflictions so slowly, the resentment at Bush-administration moralists for standing in the way of scientific progress for nonscientific reasons. The greatest animus among scientists is directed at religious believers, often defined as anyone who seeks limits on scientific freedom for ethical reasons the scientists themselves do not find compelling. The deans of major research centers feel like persecuted Galileos, yet they defend their turf in the most unscientific ways: treating the paralyzed as props in the campaign for research funding, promising cures based only on preliminary experiments, caricaturing every opponent as an irrational fanatic.

For it turns out that the methods of science cannot vindicate the ends of science, and the knowledge acquired by scientific methods cannot always justify the particular experiments used to acquire it. Yet scientists desperately want such vindication in the eyes of their fellow citizens: Good science (meaning interesting, promising, exciting) needs to be seen as good (meaning virtuous, praiseworthy, compassionate) by everyone. And so scientists have invented a new method to defend the unfettered freedom of the old one: They claim the mantle of science while making ethical claims (“embryo research is good”) that rest on no special scientific basis at all, and they portray their opponents as antiscience for raising ethical questions that are entirely consistent with the scientific facts (“embryological development begins at conception”).

Of course, the stem-cell fight is just one front in a long-standing conflict, not between science and religion, but between scientists who see all religion as an illusion and religious believers who desperately want the authority of science to bolster their faith’s claims about the origins and destiny of man, including otherworldly claims for which there is no ordinary evidence. Both sides in this struggle make extravagant avowals about nature — especially about man’s place within the natural world. And both sides are animated, in different ways, by visions of hope and despair, proof and mystery, man as elevated and man as small.

“The two world-views — science-based explanations and faith-based religions — cannot be reconciled,” the esteemed biologist Edward O. Wilson recently wrote. “What then are we to do? Put the differences aside, I say.” But such benign yet separate coexistence hardly seems like a viable option. The two realms mix whether we like it or not, and, to understand the meaning and limits of modern science, it is helpful to understand why modern science is often so hostile to religion — a task we can hardly leave to the scientists themselves.

Perhaps no idea offends the modern scientific mind more deeply than divine salvation. How weak we must be if we need a God to rescue us from the burdens of living in this world; how foolish we must be to let the fear of offending our imaginary savior get in the way of genuine progress. In A Devil’s Chaplain, the biologist Richard Dawkins defines religious faith as a “virus of the mind” — or that childlike need to “suck at the pacifier of faith in immortality.”

Otherworldly salvation comes in many different guises — salvation for all, salvation for those who believe in the one true God, salvation for those who lead good lives, salvation for those whom God chooses for his own inscrutable reasons. But the basic idea — “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” — is the common heritage of Jews and Christians, who yearn for redemption in a world whose many blessings always exist under a cloud of misery. And yet, the scientists, empirical to the core, know that faith is a fraud, a delusion, a prison cell for small minds. And it bothers them to the depths of their rational souls — although, curiously, for a series of contradictory reasons.

These contradictions go back to the beginnings of modern science. In The Great Instauration, one of the founding texts of the modern age, Francis Bacon described what he believed to be the aim and meaning of human knowledge: “I would address one general admonition to all: that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others . . . but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. . . . [From the marriage of the Mind and the Universe] there may spring helps to man, and a line and race of inventions that may in some degree subdue and overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity.”

The intelligent, in other words, have a duty to their fellow men: to seek knowledge in a way that ameliorates human misery, to seek power in the name of human charity. The trouble, as Bacon knew, is that the beneficiaries of his charity might not always be so amenable to his methods — methods that require violating not only the natural boundaries that exist between the species but also the divine boundaries that long divided the sacred from the profane. Where Leviticus ritually separates pure from impure with an eye to what is divine in man, Bacon’s “New Atlantis” vivisects and recombines everything for the sake of healing man’s animal body. “We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials; that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man.” On the isle of progress, the priest is replaced by the scientist, who conducts secret experiments to help his fellow citizens. This is the new charity.

Yet charity alone is hardly the only scientific motivation. For are we really to believe that the scientist’s own pleasure is so unimportant to Bacon’s project — the pleasure of knowing the world as it really is, taking it apart and putting it back together, coercing nature to reveal her true secrets? Are we really to believe that Descartes, who gave these fabulist visions a mathematical method, was not driven also (or primarily) by new aristocratic pleasures of the mind, pleasures that required the unfettered freedom to experiment?

From the beginning, science was driven by both democratic pity and aristocratic guile, by the promise to help humanity and the desire to be free from the constraints of the common man, with his many myths and superstitions and taboos. The modern scientist comes to heal the wretched bodies of those whose meager minds are always a threat to experimental knowledge. Salomon’s House, where the elite of Bacon’s scientific utopia would decide which inventions to publish and which to hide, existed both to protect men from science and science from men. It offers a new salvation and seeks to elude the oppressive trappings of the old one. It brings a new compassion and a new contempt. This was true in the beginning, and it is true today.

This double origin of modern science takes another form as well: seeing the unnecessary misery of false hope in God and the untold benefits of realism about nature — a realism often admitted to be tragic. The spiritual confidence of the believer offends those who know the twisted indifference of nature and that nature is everything. To the scientist, the believer is filled with more hope than he deserves to be, surprised by a joy that is not real, dreaming of a happy ending that will never come. Callous fate, not divine salvation, is the scientific news — and it is hardly good. As Alfred North Whitehead argued in his 1925 lectures “Science and the Modern World”:

The pilgrim fathers of the scientific imagination as it exists today are the great tragedians of ancient Athens, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Their vision of fate, remorseless and indifferent, urging a tragic incident to its inevitable issue, is the vision possessed by science. Fate in Greek tragedy becomes the order of nature in modern thought. . . . This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama. This remorseless inevitableness is what pervades scientific thought. The laws of physics are the decrees of fate.

Darwin put this truth in a new, biological light: Man emerged from this “remorseless and indifferent” nature, leaving us with a tragic mismatch between our spiritual longings and our mortal condition. In the Darwinian view, our origins and our destiny are little comfort to those seeking meaning beyond the imminent or seeking redemption from the wretched errors of nature that leave babies to suffer and villains to prosper. Yes, man can take a certain satisfaction and experience a certain “grandeur” in his own natural ascent, as Darwin writes at the end of his masterpiece. But faith that the human story will have a truly comic ending, that it will end in a way that satisfies man’s redemptive longings, that Providence is still at work, is weakened if not shattered.

But, of course, this tragic vision of life was not the whole truth about the birth of modern science, with its eyes set from the beginning on lifesaving “invention.” The greatest obstacle to progress, wrote Bacon, lies “in the despair of mankind and in the supposition of its impossibility.” If Christian hope offends the scientist, so does the believer’s passive acceptance of misery and active obsession with sin. To live in a godless world means that we are just as innocent as nature is blind — free not to suffer, free to alter nature’s workings for our own purposes, free to challenge the cold decree of fate as best we can muster.

Thus Condorcet, the French prophet of man’s self-improvement, believed he was living in the “ninth stage” of mankind’s progress, when reason will “lift her chains, shake herself free from some of them, and, all the time regaining strength” from the effects of the Christian Dark Ages to “prepare for and advance the moment of her liberation.” As he proclaimed in his Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795), “Nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite, and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us.”

Not all contemporary scientists are quite as bullish about progress as Condorcet, with his limitless optimism about human destiny within the world rather than beyond it. Some even fear that the “duration of the globe” is quickly coming to an end through man’s ecological abuse. But Condorcet’s spirit still pervades the modern laboratory, especially the biological laboratory, which is now the high kingdom of empirical science. Once we see (with Darwin) that men are beasts, ascendant in nature but not created in the image of God, we are free to re-create nature as if we were gods: perfecting the body and the mind.

But Condorcet’s original error — call it the original sin of the scientific Enlightenment — still haunts modern science: Perpetual progress is not the same thing as perfection. Infinite progress also means infinite discontent, as man is left in a state of eternal becoming with no end. “Indefinite perfectibility,” Condorcet’s dream, is an irreconcilable contradiction.

Perfection, after all, is an end, a limit, something definite. Christ embodies the perfection of love. The philosopher grasps the perfection of knowledge. Yet the scientist destroys the possibility of perfection by seeing a world in permanent flux. Perhaps the only perfection available to the modern scientist is stoic acceptance of contingency on the way to oblivion — and indeed, there is no necessary contradiction between stoic philosophy and modern natural science. Yet stoic acceptance of nature is precisely what modern science, technological from the beginning, is incapable of embracing in spirit. Modern science portrays a world where acceptance of our fate within nature is all we can do, and yet it remakes knowledge in such a way that technological striving is seen as the only thing worth doing. Modern biology, like Sisyphus, is haunted by temporary successes and ultimate failure. It fends off death but cannot eradicate it; it explains death’s role in natural selection but not the death of individual men still thirsty for salvation.

Writing just after World War I, when the slaughtered troops and the reality of technological war had shattered some of the Enlightenment’s optimism, Max Weber describes this tragic aspect of modern science with great pathos:

For civilized man death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite “progress,” according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no man who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity. . . . He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very “progressiveness” it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness.

Weber’s essay on “science as a vocation” is perhaps the best starting point for understanding the limits of scientific aspiration in our time. Weber praised scientists for living in the world of facts and criticized those who sought salvation by pretending that the old gods still exist. But he also reminded scientists that they have nothing privileged to say about the realm of value, the realm that matters most to human beings seeking knowledge of how to live. Like everyone else, the scientist must decide which ends to pursue, which gods to serve, which demon will “hold the very fibers of his life.” And these are exactly the questions that the scientific method cannot answer. Divine salvation may be an illusion but so is believing that science can tell us how to live in the world it dissects and describes, and how to live well in a world where scientific power is so readily, so seductively, so dangerously, at our disposal.

The impotence of science is perhaps most readily apparent in that realm where science is most powerful: nuclear weapons. Consider, for example, the current confrontation with Iran. Only the scientifically trained can provide accurate estimates about the state of Iran’s weapons development, about the state of our own offensive and defensive military options, about the likely effects of a nuclear attack — the number of dead bodies, the hazards to the environment, the technical challenges of rebuilding. But when it comes to making decisions or evaluating the meaning of our nuclear predicament, the methods of science lead us into the nonscientific realm of interpretation.

The sociobiologist, who sees man in light of his long animal history and nature as a vast impersonal process, might say that the confrontation with Iran hardly matters in the cosmic scheme of things. Man killing man, culture clashing with culture, is inherent to nature’s law of survival. Superior cultures, like superior individuals, triumph over inferior ones, at least in the long run. Life improves through death in a blind drama that continues unabated. The neuroscientist, who studies the brain to understand its mechanisms and improve its workings, might look instead to man himself as the agent for changing human nature. Perhaps our advancing understanding of neurobiology will eventually make tyranny a thing of the past. Perhaps our emerging science of the mind will bring a new age of man-made peace and stability, a “psychocivilized society.” Perhaps Darwin’s greatest species will triumph over Darwin’s brutal laws.

Yet such interpretations are morally and strategically unsatisfying, to say the least. Human beings may be destined always to kill one another, but we leave ourselves morally impotent if we see this dark fact about the human condition as our only guide to moral action. Mankind may be destined to become something better, but discerning the difference between improvement and degradation requires some standard beyond the imminent processes of nature, lest we make ourselves into the subhuman denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World. And while the unrestrained pursuit of knowledge is perhaps the core dogma of science, one imagines that any scientist with a conscience would reject the shelter of scientific freedom that even an evil regime like Iran might offer, a regime that might see the uninhibited investigation of the physical world as useful to its own perverse ends. While the moral obligation should be obvious, there is no scientific reason not to become an Iranian scientist.

In every area of public life where science and morality intersect, there are questions about the use of science that science itself can never answer. On stem cells, scientists can tell us the potential benefits of destroying human embryos but not whether the progress of medicine justifies the willful destruction of nascent human life. On drilling in Alaska, scientists can estimate the potential oil reserves and the potential harm to the ecosystem but not whether we have a moral responsibility to expand the domestic oil supply or to preserve an unsullied wilderness even with economic harm to ourselves. On human exploration of space, scientists can estimate the economic and human costs of putting a man on Mars and the potential benefits of such a mission to the advance of human knowledge, but they cannot say whether human greatness in space is more worthy of public funds than ongoing research into curing AIDS. Science is power without wisdom about the uses of power. As Hans Jonas put it: “The scientist himself is by his science no more qualified than others to discern, nor is he more disposed to care for, the good of mankind. Benevolence must be called in from the outside to supplement the knowledge acquired through theory: it does not flow from theory itself.”

Yet the scientists still often want to tell us how to live, and they often claim the authority of science for their moral exhortations. Richard Dawkins, for example, ends his book with a letter of advice to his ten-year-old daughter on “good and bad reasons for believing.” “Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong,” he writes. These false feelings pass from one generation to another, from gullible parents to gullible children. “Could this be what has happened with religions” — this perpetuation of illusion? “Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood — not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.”

One can surely respect the integrity of the rationalist who doubts the existence of a heaven he cannot see and who is skeptical about theological claims that rest on dueling authorities rather than empirical evidence. But now imagine, say, a stem-cell biologist writing a similar letter to a ten-year-old girl in the cancer ward — a girl dying of the very disease the biologist cannot yet cure. The girl faces her demise with courage; she knows that God loves her, that the death of her body is not the end of her being. She prays every night, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” and she still manages to smile every morning. What would the stem-cell biologist say to the girl he wants so desperately to rescue from the ravages of nature? Would he describe the miracle cures that will not come in time? Would he tell her that God’s love is an illusion, that her prayers evaporate unheard and unanswered into the ether, that her brief transitory existence is all there is, that she is “sucking the pacifier of faith in immortality”?

Perhaps the rationalist can stomach a little bit of comforting illusion for a dying girl he cannot help. Or perhaps he believes her piety must be shattered for the greater good, since the lives of future children depend on destroying that fundamentalist faith (“embryos are sacred”) that stands in the way of progress. Perhaps the young girl’s courage will cause him to question his own rational certainty that the God she worships is simply an illusion, or to see her very desire for God as evidence of God’s existence. Yet whatever letter the biologist writes, science cannot tell him what to say. Perhaps it would be better, at times, for the impotent scientist to say nothing.

But humility, alas, is not always a prominent scientific virtue, at least among the most prominent scientists, and especially among many modern biologists. And while science cannot decide for itself what to do and how to live, there does seem to be a prevailing pattern of scientific worship. Devotion to the scientific method seems to produce an ethos about the meaning of science. Of course, it is always dangerous to generalize, since science and scientists are so variable in spirit — consider biologists and physicists, academic scientists and corporate scientists, theoreticians and engineers. But it is also fair to say that certain general attitudes dominate the contemporary scientific mind or at least the elite organs of science (like the editorial page of Science magazine) that shape the influence of science on our culture.

First, science invites us to believe in both charity and ruthlessness. Modern biomedical research, most especially, often aims to help the weak by using the weak. It aims to help the sick, the suffering, and the desperate by using the embryonic, the dying, and the dispossessed. (Most recently, Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, proposed using dying patients to test unproven embryonic stem-cell therapies: a classic example of ruthless charity at work.) The experimental method blurs the line between those who benefit from scientific improvements and those who might serve as the experimental basis for such improvements. Science blurs the line between the human subject and the human object. This is especially true, perhaps uniquely true, in biology: By studying the parts of animals, the organismic whole is lost; the animal becomes simply a biological “model.” And by studying human beings as animals, the line between man and the other animals is lost; man becomes simply another biological resource. The method of science becomes the ethos of science, or as Wordsworth put it, “We murder to dissect.”

Second, science invites us to believe in both human greatness and human smallness. The greatness of man is the mind at work; our capacity for knowing is the singular measure of our dignity; the body is a machine on which science can work its wonders for the sake of the will. But science also cannot escape its understanding of human origins — emerging from the dust of the ground, without any notion of being created in the image of a perfect maker. In this view, man is both beast and angel, rather than image of God. This is why science can conduct the most ghastly experiments on animals (with godlike power) while also worrying as a guild about the effect of modern civilization on the animals of the earth, seeing man as more beastly than the beasts he destroys, or at least worth no more than the animals he uses. It is why science can devote so much energy to curing disease while believing that death is nature’s way of improving itself.

Finally, science invites us to believe in both progress and nihilism. Most scientists believe that knowledge will advance, technology will improve, human life will get better, if only they are free to do their work, unhampered by irrational taboos. And yet the perfect freedom that science demands is also, in the end, a form of nihilism. Science in itself sets no limits to human action, except perhaps those actions that inhibit the activity of science. But since the domain of science is infinite within nature, there is no action that could not, in fact, be redefined as an experiment. Some scientists hold that human beings are hardwired to behave in certain ways, including ways that are compatible with our bourgeois values. But this faith in human nature in general is not the same as believing that particular human beings have any particular moral obligations. It is a description of how human beings tend to live, not a set of prescriptions for how human beings ought to live. It is a study of man always open to refinement, not an image of man in which all our refinements should be judged.

And this brings us back to Condorcet’s haunting legacy: Science destroys perfection in the name of progress, but its progress ultimately fails to satisfy. In the end, the cost seems too high for those seeking a more perfect salvation from the miseries of nature. The hospital chapel may be an architectural afterthought, but the chaplain (not the “devil’s chaplain”) still usually gets the last word. Our faith in science eventually gives way to our need for faith. We choose the hope of perfection over endless progress and unfettered freedom but only after trying for as long as possible to have everything without contradiction.

Unquestionably, the modern scientific project has been a great success: Our lives would be inferior — indeed horrible — in countless ways without the technological fruits that were always its primary aim. We have gone some way toward correcting the amorality of nature, using nature as our instrument. For the sick, in particular, scientists and doctors are often the first saviors, restoring normal life when the ugliness of death seeks another victim. The scientist is, sometimes, the personification of love in a method. Yet ultimately, the modern scientific project will always be a failure: Its powers do not satisfy our deepest longings; its victories are always temporary and its losses always final.

Even while many scientists accuse religious believers of zealously imposing their values on everyone, some seem to have embraced a new fundamentalism of their own: the belief that Darwinism explains everything important about being human, combined with the passionate need to convert the unconverted and unsave the saved. Confronted by the aimless nature they so laboriously study, many scientists seem to need a universal, all-encompassing framework to explain their existence. Yet while orthodox Darwinists believe that the law of animal survival explains much of human behavior, they also believe that being a scientist is nobler than being simply a gene-spreading animal. The point of the scientific project is not simply to see ourselves clearly as the beasts we are but to imagine that we possess the cleverness and magnanimity of gods. It seeks not simply to understand the law of death (evolution as we find it) but to wield mastery over life (evolution as we make it).

Despite its inherent limits and frequent excesses, there is great dignity in the scientific vocation rightly understood — the dignity of confronting nature’s facts in all their beauty and ugliness, and the dignity of seeking to make human life a little less miserable. Science is, or can be, a noble vocation, a realm of human endeavor that invites human excellence, including moral excellence. Against the sin of despair, the scientist stands for action. Against the postmodern revolt against reality, the scientist seeks truth. Thrown into a world that is mysterious, the scientist seeks to bring into light what is so often shrouded in darkness.

The trouble is that most scientists — at least most modern biologists, whose work dominates the public imagination about science — do not seem to reflect much or deeply about the limits of their method, or about the moral significance of the ends they seek and the means they use. The recent book by human genome pioneer Francis Collins — a memoir of faith that might have been titled C.S. Lewis Goes to the Laboratory — is notable precisely because it is such a striking exception to the norm. In the public realm, most biologists seem, all too often, like scientific geniuses and moral simpletons, applying rational rigor to their investigations of nature but relying on feeling as their only moral compass. And for all its appreciation of nature’s complexity, the scientific mind seems no rival for the Bible or Aristotle or Machiavelli in understanding human complexity. Next to the philosopher, the neuroscientist still looks, all too often, like a fool.

The scientist is especially foolish when he is optimistic without a dose of tragic reservation. For, despite Condorcet’s claims, science is perhaps most necessary precisely because of the permanence of human sin and human evil, not because scientific progress will be the tool of their eradication. We will continue to need vaccine makers because evil men will make and use biological weapons. We will need missile-defense makers because evil men will use ballistic missiles. We will need surveillance-system makers because evil men will always be plotting the destruction of the innocent. Not the inevitable perfection of man in nature but the permanent imperfection of the human soul makes modern science a moral necessity — including, at times, the kind of ruthless experiments that are justifiable only in moments of supreme emergency, when civilization itself lies in the balance.

And no doubt, in the days ahead, there will be many emergencies — anthrax attacks, avian flu, natural disasters, nuclear explosions — when the power of science will serve both the best and worst impulses of man in a world of great darkness. But perhaps our greatest challenge is trying to recover an understanding of human life and human death that avoids treating existence itself as a supreme emergency, an endless war against nature, a Sisyphean struggle with no Sabbath in time.

Faced with the contingencies of nature and history, perhaps we need to regain the kind of equanimity that faith often inspires. Faced with a world that so often seems absurd, perhaps we should not place all our hopes in science alone. In our hunger for still waters, nature offers no proof that man’s redemptive hopes are justified, but also no proof that everything is hopeless.

Nature is filled with the good things it destroys; natural beings yearn for life even as they are born toward death. And one of those natural beings — man — knows that nature, even when mastered by science, will never satisfy our more-than-natural longings. Amid life’s many horrors and wonders, those eternal longings will never go away.

— Eric Cohen is a editor of the New Atlantis and resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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