The Political Institutionalization of Science in the United States

We all must learn to look between the tree branches

We all must learn to look between the tree branches

The Political Institutionalization of Science in the United States

by A. M. Kulkin

[in Russian] Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki, 1983, No. 2: 50-61.

trans. M. Meo

The foundation for the present organization of science in the United States of America was laid during the Second World War. The new framework for scientific activity arose as a result of actions of the President using his extraordinary wartime authority. Many of the founders of these scientific institutional organizations considered them purely temporary expedients; at the end of the war, however, and particularly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the impossibility of a return to the norms of prewar scientific life became apparent to all.

During the first postwar decade the U.S. witnessed an intensive process of social-economic institutionalization of science; the necessity for a political institutionalization of science as well was generally acknowledged by the end of the [19]50s, under the impact of the so-called “Sputnik shock”.

The impressive accomplishments of the leadership of science within the USSR had a decisive influence on the formation of systems of organization of scientific activity throughout the world. Within a short space of a few years after the triumph of the October Revolution, the government of the Soviet Union came to regard scientific activity as an essential part of a comprehensive plan for the development of the national economy, arguably the most important function, in this capacity, of the socialist state. It took the ideologues and political leaders of the capitalist world some 40 years to recognize and appreciate the significance of this approach to scientific work.

After the launching of the first-ever artificial earth satellite by the Soviet Union science became an object of the most intense concern of elite bourgeois politicians and scientific advisors. Congressional appropriations of monies for scientific research increased sharply, and reforms were undertaken aimed at the creation of a modern organizational structure for scientific work and for state institutions for the direction of scientific activity. An intensive effort toward the preparation of cadres of scientific and engineering specialists was launched: the secondary and tertiary educational institutions received federal aid to become abreast of the most important developments of scientific and technical progress, and a modern scientific infrastructure (to this day still not complete in many countries) was put in place. Simultaneously a rapid and irreversible change in the social status of the scientist took place; to the traditional rôle of scientific researcher and pedagogue was added the novel function of expert advisor. Scientists were drawn into politics, into participation in the posing and resolving of management decisions.

One important act of the U.S. government was the establishment in November 1957 of the office of Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. The idea of such a position had arisen a long time previously: the de facto first such assistant had been V. Bush, appointed at the very beginning of the Second World War (1941) director of the Office for Scientific Research and Development [OSRD] by President F. Roosevelt. This constituted the first serious attempt among the capitalist countries to fashion an apparatus of government for the formation of science policy. V. Bush considered himself a link connecting the White House to the scientific community. Despite the significant success achieved by OSRD in mobilizing scientific and technical resources for rapid development of effective military technology, it was nonetheless abolished in 1946 and its responsibilities redistributed among various agencies of the federal government. This deliberate act demonstrates that, in spite of the experience of the management of science gained during the course of the war years, a climate favorable to the institutionalization of science had yet to develop with the U.S. political structure. The Scientific Advisory Committee, created in 1951 at the initiative of scientists for the benefit of the Office of Defense Mobilization, remained inactive. Only after the Soviet launch of Sputnik did the situation alter, and crucially.

Sputnik exploded the belief in the unchallengeable scientific and technical supremacy of the United States. In his recollections of this period J. Killian, the first Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, wrote of “the Russian Sputnik” creating a crisis of faith in the power of the U.S. governing class. According to J. Killian the well-known physicist E. Teller declared that the U.S. had suffered a defeat more crushing than Pearl Harbor [12, pp. 7-8]. The allies of the U.S. evaluated the situation similarly. Ambassadors reported to their governments that of 4 October 1957 — the date of the launch of Sputnik — the center of diplomatic and political life had moved form Washington to Moscow. The English prime minister H. Macmillan at the beginning of November 1957 stated, “I can say without any hesitation or reservation, that this is really a turning point in history” [12, p. 10]. Even U.S. President D. Eisenhower was obliged to acknowledge

This is a remarkable scientific accomplishment. The amount of thrust required for lifting a satellite of such a weight into orbit certainly took us by surprise. There’s no sense in trying to lessen either this accomplishment or the warning it contains: extra effort is required of us toward the achievement of maximum progress in rocket technology and in other scientific programs” [9, p. 205].

In these circumstances the idea was renewed of creating a position of special assistant to the President for science and technology and of transferring the scientific consultative committee from the Office of Defense Mobilization to the immediate control of the President. A written plan was prepared which defined the status of the special assistant and the range of his responsibilities. The appointed assistant was to be under the aegis of the President, authorized to enlist leading scientists as advisors, and charged with providing scientific and technical consultation on all questions within the purview of the federal government.

The creation of this position and the transfer of the scientific consultative committee from the Office of Defense Mobilization to the White House were decisive steps in the establishment of a state mechanism for the direction of scientific activity. The central individual in the articulation of a national science policy now was the President (and his staff, the recruitment to which continued during the next several years).

The first appointee to Special Assistant for Science and Technology was the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology J. Killian. In a secret letter of 7 December 1957 to Killian from D. Eisenhower, a letter distributed among high government officials, and once again in the secret directive of 15 July 1959 appointing Killian’s successor G. Kistiakowski (both documents only recently declassified), an almost impossible number of responsibilities are specified. Included among his obligations are the coordination of government-financed scientific research activity, the mediation of development of a national policy for science and technology, and the presentation to the President and government departments of advice on the scientific and technical aspects of practically all questions of the domestic and foreign policies of the the U.S. At the same time the special assistant was extended the right to take part in the deliberations of the most senior conferences of state agencies (including the National Security Council) and to have access to all plans and programs of government departments relating to science and technology, including those highly classified within the Defense Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the C.I.A. It should be noted immediately that approximately 90 % of the special assistant’s time was taken by the direction and coordination of scientific and technical problems of a military nature. Civilian research practically never came within his authority [12, p. 36].

[Author’s Note 1 {footnote in the original}: Official contacts between scientists and military officers not only did not end with the conclusion of the Second World War but became in fact much more extensive. US universities fell into acute financial dependence on the military services, fostered by the administrative power of the federal government. New scientific and technical projects, research programs, and institutions sprouted like mushrooms. The military-industrial complex in the course of its very formation decisively subordinated science to itself.]

The status of the Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and his relationship to the Congressional committees of the House and Senate, was a significant political question among U.S. ruling circles. The attempt of the scientific community at the end of the Second World War to assert itself before the White House had not met with success. The very fact, therefore, of the appointment of a representative member of the scientific community as assistant to the President, of his investment with an extensive range of authority, and of his protection against the power of subpoena before the various committees and commissions of Congress — all this was only possible as a consequence of the extraordinary situation int he country resulting from the “Sputnik shock”.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of the pressing problems before the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) was that of the development of the technology for space exploration. In February 1958 D. Eisenhower requested a recommendation from the PSAC regarding the general program of space research and its organizational structure. With this aim in mind a commission chaired by E. Parsell began work on the planning of a new organization, based on the principle that “none of the existing organizations can be considered suitable for such an unusual function as the space program” [12, p. 125].

The planning of the new organization became mired in a many-sided struggle among various services (chief among them the military ones) for the right to monopolize the control and direction of space research. What did representatives of the scientists say in these circumstances?

V. Bush and others suggested the idea to use as the prototype of the new organization the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), on the basis of which they proposed the creation of a National Air and Space Administration (NASA). They started with the fact that that NACA gad had experience in working both on civilian and military research programs, which would be useful in the organization of space research. The space program, however, had become too important to permit entrusting its direction to “the advice of well-wishers.”

During the discussion in the U.S. Congress of the bill to establish NASA, there was unusually heated disagreement regarding the relationship between he civilian and military aspects of space exploration. The bill, passed into law in July 1958, was essentially a compromise: the partisans of a civilian space program succeeded in theory, but in practice control over the activity of NASA was submitted to the military services. That is what E.C.B. Schoettle, author of “The Establishment of NASA” [M.I.T. Press, 1963], writes on the subject:

In this manner NASA originated, not as a national agency, with a definite policy in the area of space activity, but rather as a regular organ of the executive branch, especially designed to conduct fundamental research in space science, to perform experiments in space in conjunction with other government agencies, and to collaborate with the military services in research and development of military interest.

And elsewhere:

During the Eisenhower Administration the general features of the scientific advisory apparatus of the President emerged. The functions of this apparatus could be divided into two categories :
1) the participation of scientific advisors in the development of science policy and the determination of priorities in the funding of scientific research; and
2) the participation by scientists in the formation of national federal policies and the use of scientific data and scientific methods in order to reach political decisions.
The realization of these tasks, however, was extremely difficult, for the political interests of the country did not always coincide with the aim of the party in power [5, p. 106].

In the final analysis the President and his executive apparatus defined a national science policy which was likely to promote the consolidation of their power, the strengthening of their influence, and the increase of their prestige. The power of the President in defining science policy is limited only by budgetary and bureaucratic constraints. For this reason the U.S. Congress has on its part attempted to exercise control over the management of progress in science and technology through its many committees concerned with science, the number of which committees increased dramatically after the Soviet launch of the first Sputnik.

The excessively compartmentalized system of committees, however, ensures that Congress has not been, and still is not, able to grasp in its entirety the problem of the management of the development of science and technology within the United States. The majority of the Congressional concerns are of an individual character, unrelated to any general strategy governing scientific and technical progress. The network of federal agencies engaged in scientific and technical work is too extensive and varied to have been controlled by means of strict centralization : the federal government contains 4000 distinct scientific research organizations [12, p. 3].

The office of assistant to the President for science and technology underwent further institutionalization under President J. Kennedy. The leading characteristic of they period was the transformation of the President’s science advisory apparatus into a bureaucratic office. The Special Assistant for Science lost part of his responsibilities of control and direction within the area of his authority.

Under pressure from Congress President Kennedy in 1962 created the Office of Science and Technology (OST), headed by the President’s science advisor who, as director of OST, was obliged to appear before Congress and answer its members’ questions. The organization headed by the science advisor went from forming a part of the White House to a part of the executive branch of the federal government. This was a concession to Congreess, as a result of which the function of OST rapidly became reduced to coordinating, rather than directing, the scientific research activities of government agencies.

As a consequence of the fact that the function of directing the scientific and technical organizations of the government had been detached from the White House, its institutionalization took place in the separate parts of the executive branch. By the end of 1963 almost all federal departments had advisors or assistants for science policy on their staffs. The science advisory staff of the President, however, including the just-created OST, was still under the complete control of the President, not Congress, since all of the parts of this apparatus had been established on the basis of administrative order (a circumstance from which R. Nixon subsequently drew certain inferences).

The transfer of responsibility for the direction of science and technology from the White House to the federal departments marked the start of a new tendency: during the period 1963-1973 a rupture formed and widened between the President and his science advisory apparatus, the influence of which [latter] in the preparation of science and technology policy, as well as that in the promotion of the scientific method in policy decisions, contracted to a minimum. The guarded watchfulness between the White House and the scientific elite, which characterized relations relations during the administrations 9of D. Eisenhower and J. Kennedy,

[Author’s Note 2: Despite his attentive respect for science President J. Kennedy believed that scientists made use of his science advisory apparatus for their own personal scientific interests. This evaluation of the relationship between scientists and the Presidential power coincided with that expressed by his predecessor D. Eisenhower, who in his farewell address of 17 January 196 warned of the “catastrophic growth” and “overwhelming influence” of “the military-industrial complex,” but also of the presence of a “danger that state policy may itself become a prisoner of the scientific-technical elite” [11, p. 99].]

developed into tension during the administration of L. Johnson. By the end of the [19]60s the growth in federal appropriations for research and development had slowed to a halt. The Presidential assistant for science and technology had surrendered his power while the scientific community began to subject the President to bitter criticism.

How can these rapid changes in the relationship between the political leadership and the scientific community during the Presidency of L. Johnson be explained?

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Don Gavitte, Economics, Empire, Global, Marxism, Mathematics, Ronald Reagan, Seidel, Uncategorized, War. Bookmark the permalink.

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