Get Your Book Summaries Here! Today: Non-Pure Science

I virtually just started reading towards comprehensive oral exams (= orals). I’m writing this post after having finished my third and, luckily, last book for tonight. Instead of taking notes on the 1,000 pages I read today, I want to share my summarizing essay for last week’s meeting with you.

Spoiler alert: Over the course of the next six months, I intend to post all of my orals-related writings here (sometimes more, sometimes less comparative/analytical). This is meant to provide you with something useful and to not let this weblog entirely succumb to a vegetative state while I am reading the 250 books that I will be examined on next Spring (and teaching, and applying for summer funding, and …).

The three orals fields, which I put together for myself advised by my committee, are:

  • “Modern Continental European History, 1789–1945” with Heidi Voskuhl,
  • “History of the Skull, Mind, and Brain Sciences” with John Tresch, and
  • “History of Post-War US Science and Feminism” with Susan Lindee.

So, here is my essay on the section “Non-Pure Science” from my “History of Post-War US Science and Feminism” list with Susan Lindee. You may keep all the typos you find.

Works read:
Rosenberg, Charles E. 1997 (1976). No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought. Rev. and exp. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Greenberg, Daniel S. 1999 (1967). The Politics of Pure Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wang, Jessica. 1999. American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945–1975. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Leslie, Stuart W. 1993. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia University Press.

The larger theme that runs through the five books I am discussing in this essay could be termed the “non-purity” of science, be it in the sense that scientific practice and knowledge is intrinsically linked with broader social agendas, that even basic research is never free from demands for applicable results, or that military interests shape research endeavors and academic infrastructure. In what follows, I will first give a quick overview of each of the five books I have read and then compare and contrast the works along some main arguments and recurring themes.

Charles Rosenberg’s No Other Gods is a collection of individual essays on a range of scientific disciplines in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The original version of the book was first published in 1976 and the revised edition from 1997 has been expanded by several more essays about the histories of theories on sexuality, physiology, agricultural science, and heredity research more broadly. The central thought that Rosenberg illustrates in his essays is that these investigations contributed to stabilize and naturalize the existing social order and that it incorporated the values and goals of the scientists. Rosenberg makes clear that Protestantism, secularism, and economic growth led to an increasing authority and material power of science in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, the history of science cannot be told without regards to its broader social context.

The first of two parts in Rosenberg’s collection, titled “Science, Authority, and the Logic of Social Explanation” is the most diverse regarding the range of topics. Methodologically, however, the essays are similar: they draw on scientific publications and archival records (mainly correspondence between scientists found in university archives) and state regulations pertaining to the funding of scientific research. In the first chapter, “The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought,” Rosenberg tells a history of heredity research from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. He shows how scientists managed to integrate new developments such as Darwinism, the germ theory, the public health movement, phrenology, and degenerative theories with their concept of heredity by making small adjustments to their system. This way, scientists and physicians had powerful tools at their disposal to explain and predict health and disease on an individual level. Furthermore, gender inequality, social Darwinism, and racism could be explained and justified in scientific terms, as expressions or consequences of natural laws of heredity. Later chapters reiterate the motif that scientific theories were rather rigid and traditional when it came to core beliefs of scientists, such as that women are feeble and inferior, but very flexible in the ways in which they expressed and justified this opinion scientifically. Scientific concepts of heredity and sexuality allowed for anti-reformism, conservativism, and the idea of natural sanctioning if individuals (or groups) disobeyed social norms.

In The Politics of Pure Science, Daniel Greenberg takes up the question of basic versus applied research. His book was first published in 1967, almost a decade before Rosenberg’s, and recently reprinted in an almost unaltered edition. Greenberg, a journalist, argues in much detail that science funding significantly changed in the 1960s. The “old” regime, he argues, was a system of a few massively funded elite groups of scientists that were very productive and had a successful system of self-recruitment. They were held accountable for their products by funding and governmental agencies, but for the most part, they were sovereign (ab)users of the masses of funding that were set free during the Arms Race. In opposition to this, the “new” regime, pushed by President Johnson, was characterized by smaller and more distributed funds for projects supposed to create research products useful to the broader society. Scientists became servants for governmental purposes under the oversight of non-scientists. In particular, this new way of science funding and governmental involvement in research agendas meant a turn away from funding for “pure,” or basic, research.

Greenberg draws on a wide range of sources, such as interviews, speeches, records of Senate hearings, governmental reports, budgets, and memoranda, as well as other archival sources. Greenberg describes very clearly that the scientific community and the US government as well as major funding institutions and scientific/technological advisory committees were run by the same small circle of people, and that, consequently, conflicts of interest were inevitable. His agenda is clear: science should foster ethics and moral, regain its enchantment, revive its calling, and be less fixated on the acquisition of research funding; politicians, on the other hand, should come up with a sustainable and consequent attitude towards basic research funding.

Even more so than Greenberg, Jessica Wang spells out the history of governmental agencies that worked with, for, or against scientists. Her first book American Science in an Age of Anxiety, published in 1999, draws on a massive range of university, government, and national security archives, including partially illegible FBI files. Her main argument is that attacks from national institutions and intelligence agencies challenged the pursuit of science immediately after WWII and ruined a safe research environment. Scientific institutions, such as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) missed the moment to vehemently oppose human rights violations targeting scientists in the name of anti-communism; consequently, war-time repressions in science continued long after WWII and became a normalcy during the Cold War period.

Wang starts out with a description of the political backgrounds of the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a civilian institution formed to oversee nuclear energy research as a reaction to the attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She follows the controversies between the scientists and politicians adhering to the ideals of the New Left versus a New Deal political economy through various bills, amendments, regulations, and commissions. The central question that fueled most of the debates between the government and the scientists was how the US could be safe in the face of the growing Soviet threat: with sovereign civilian-lead scientific groups or with governmental oversight, and with direct military funding or with funding from an independent national science foundation. The FAS, for example, strongly favored a national science foundation that would allow them to acquire funding for their research independently of military needs. Regarding the problem of surveillance by state agencies, the FAS was not so outspoken, and neither was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Both institutions formed committees on civil liberties, but they were politically powerless due to their lack of political experience and/or their hesitation to resist the overpowering state.

Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science, published in 2008, is the most clearly structured book of the five discussed here and, in its discussion of the secondary literature, reads quite like a very well-written dissertation. Moore provides a very clear overview of three major movements that challenged the relations between science and the military in the three decades after WWII. First, moral individualism (her term, and according to her the least well-known movement), which was fueled by pacifism and the Quaker renewal movement in the 1940s. In 1949, a group of scientists formed the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (SSRS), advocating for the personal responsibility of each individual scientist and the research they do. The group consisted only of a few dozen core members by the mid-1950s, but they gathered more and more members. The SSRS deliberately avoided being political, but members still suffered from FBI surveillance. The group had hardly any political impact and was totally fragmented by the 1970s.

Second, liberalism, in particular the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), which grew out of the Ban the Bomb movement and was fueled by the concerns of the consequences of nuclear fallout after the nuclear testing in 1954. The group was diverse and many members were recruited from women’s, labor, and religious groups. The common goal that united them was to supply allegedly value-free information about nuclear testing to citizens in order to allow the broader public to form their own opinion about the issue. The core idea was to defend democracy and generate an open discussion about military research. When the Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the SSRS lost momentum and eventually dissolved.

And, third, the New Left, which grew out of the Anti-Vietnam-War Movement and the debate around anti-ballistic missiles in the 1960s. The deaths of Kennedy and King in 1968 radicalized the movement and it was the only one of the three that was deliberately political. A group of ca. 300 physicists joined in and formed the group “Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action” (Science for the People, SftP) at the meeting of the American Physical Society to propagate the idea that science is not neutral, but contributes to ongoing wars and suffering. The activism reached its height in 1969 with public disruptions in universities and at professional science meetings.

Drawing mainly on a range of archival sources (including collections at the AAAS and the Library of Congress), interviews from a range of 15 years, and recorded oral histories, Moore shows how scientists themselves changed the view of society that science was apolitical. She argues that the scientists, during these three overlapping movements that exposed the misuse of science for political means, have questioned their own morality and authority. As a sociologist, she also makes more abstract claims regarding the organization of scientific movements and the changes to the structure of the scientific community and how the broader society viewed them. Furthermore, Moore means to show that the three described movements could not have occurred independently of one another; this sounds plausible in the sense that the groups gradually increased their visibility and assertiveness as well as strengthened their organization, but Moore doesn’t make explicit where the connections between the groups were and how they built on one another.

Stuart Leslie’s monograph from 1993, The Cold War and American Science, focuses on two universities, the MIT and Stanford University. Leslie zooms in on the military-science entanglement in the departments of electrical engineering, aeronautics, nuclear physics, and material science at both universities. With the help of archival collections (e.g., APS, MIT Museum, and the Rockefeller Foundation), newspaper articles, and contemporary book and journal publications, Leslie traces the history of the eight departments and their individual laboratories throughout the twentieth century, but core to his argument are the post-WWII years. By illustrating how deeply the military was involved in the funding of as well as the teaching and research on these sites, Leslie attempts to prove that military involvement has significantly skewed or “redefined” scientific knowledge and research and that this took away funds for civilian research.

Leslie shows in astonishing detail how strong the personal, monetary, organizational, and intellectual ties between the university departments and the military were. For instance, the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) at MIT grew directly out of a WWII Radiation Laboratory; the military funding was carried over to peacetime and most of the personnel and the facilities were adopted. At the MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, even students got to work on projects for the armed forces, which was deemed a useful experience for their future professional life, as Leslie shows. Moreover, the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering (LNSE) at MIT was the first academic nuclear physics group in the US to turn to nuclear engineering and the first to develop a reactor design.

The story of Stanford was different but similar. Stanford, much unlike the MIT, was a rather mediocre university before WWII, but a focus on good education programs in militarily relevant fields brought in many military funds and defense industries. Lockheed, for example, taught students in the Stanford aeronautics program, which ended up being funded well enough to gain independence and form its own department. Similarly, the Microwave Laboratory in the physics department managed to acquire enough funds ($ 112) for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). In 1966, the group split off and formed the Department of Applied Physics.

Leslie closes with a chapter on the disruptions to both campuses by the New Left movement in the late 1960s, which is very good to read alongside Moore’s work. Leslie shows that some institutions had to close down, or much rather, become independent from the university, but his description doesn’t show clearly that his actors deemed the military involvement to be as bad as Leslie himself seems to believe. As he writes, most of the scientists and staff at MIT didn’t join the strike in 1969 and the Microwave Laboratory researchers in Stanford wanted to continue their classified research without any constraints from the university. It is also not clear to what extend the examples from MIT and Stanford about the military funding serve as an exemplar for other US universities, in particular since Greenberg has shown that not the same standards hold true for elite and other scientific institutions.

The question of how much, if at all, science suffers or suffered from the involvement of the military is an important and a difficult one that resonates with almost all of the books in this section. One approach taken by Moore and Wang is to show how individual scientists suffered: Wang illustrates, for example, from the denial of security clearances, which made it impossible for the scientists to work. As a result, some of them lost their careers, their public credibility, and significant amounts of life quality. Moore’s work makes very clear how much effort individual scientists undertook in order to organize and draw attention to the problems they saw with science funding from the military. Leslie has collected much evidence for the fact that there was a lot of military involvement. But if one reads his actors reactions, e.g., that classified research was “normal, if occasionally troublesome, part of engineering education in the postwar world” (61), or that the ARPA felt exploited by the materiel science department at Stanford because they never provided any usable product as a result to the massive funding, then one could as well come to the conclusion that the scientists abused a Cold-War mentality to their own benefit (this is the “old” model identified by Greenberg).

The question of funding more broadly is a thread throughout all of the books in this collection. In a very interesting chapter about “Charles Benedict Davenport and the Irony of American Eugenics,” Rosenberg explains how Davenport acquired significant amounts of outside funding from the Carnegie Institution. Even though he was not a brilliant researcher, philanthropic organizations were willing to invest large sums in research that promised to solve social problems, as his combination of biostatistics and Mendelianism initially did. This was one of the earliest instances of a researcher’s success in acquiring large-scale outside funding.

Government funding, in contrast to Moore’s narrative, also largely impacted the US scientific landscape early on: the Cleveland and Roosevelt administrations granted each state several thousands of dollars yearly for agricultural research (Hatch and Adams Acts, 1887 and 1906). As Rosenberg concludes, these government grants supported biochemistry and genetics in their formative stages. As chapter 13 in his volume shows, this allowed the US to train the mass of biologists they needed in order to become the leading country in the field of genetics a few years later.
Greenberg’s Book II investigates more closely into the actual alliances between scientists and their funders. He argues that it was crucial to scientists to direct committees and working groups themselves before and during the war, even though they were heavily funded by the military. This served the purpose of maintaining the conviction that the government needed science to govern well, but science didn’t need the government. After the war, however, the idea of the independence of science needed to be given up, Greenberg argues. Scientists simply didn’t want to go back to being underfunded like in the interwar-period.

As Greenberg makes also clear, however, it has long been much easier for applied sciences to acquire funding than for basic research. On the one hand, basic research was seen as a noble profession by the scientists themselves, as one that is not self-explanatory and does produce deeper insight only, and no marketable goods. On the other hand, the scientists felt the need to explain their research to the public in order to get funding and appreciation. Rosenberg shows that this has been the case since at least the turn of the century. His chapters 11 and 12, “Unintended Consequences: The Ideological Shaping of American Agricultural Research, 1875–1914“ and “Science Pure and Science Applied: Two Studies in the Social Origin of Scientific Research,” show that the struggle for basic research funding was tough. Agricultural science was meant to produce marketable products and not simply more knowledge about heredity. But even if the seeds for hybrid corn could be successfully produced, they only contributed to the growth of few already rich farms that had the means of implementing the necessary changes. Not even applied agricultural science was, thus, truly a science for the small people, which it impoverished even more.

Regardless of whether we read about scientists from the nineteenth or the twentieth century fighting for funding and trying to justify their research to the broader public, the books show that a complete history of science cannot be written as a history of ideas alone. The five works also make clear that science is never autonomous, neither from social values and goals nor from “the state” or “the military” (which are, by the way, mostly black-boxed in all of the accounts discussed here). This is another reason for why I find it problematic that Leslie hammers the point so much that the military replaced scientific curiosity: military ideas may be a very bad force in science, but they only replace not necessarily better social values and ideas that could come from elsewhere.

Cite this blog post
Tabea Cornel (2015, October 9). Get Your Book Summaries Here! Today: Non-Pure Science. The Semipermeable Membrane. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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