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A department of science?

In 1863, Congress took the country’s first step toward more direct federal involvement in the sciences when it chartered the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Although established as a privately administered, honorific body akin to the scientific academies of continental Europe or the Royal Society of London, the NAS was also authorized to respond to requests by government for scientific assistance and advice. Accordingly, Congress would implement an NAS recommendation in 1879 that various federal efforts be coordinated under the new U.S. Geological Survey. And a Joint Congressional Commission, chaired by Senator W.B. Allison from 1884 through 1886, “to study the organization of the surveys of the chief countries of Europe, and to recommend methods of coordinating the scientific branches of the government,” Ibid., 215 was the outcome of another NAS recommendation.

The NAS’s response to the Allison Commission’s request emphasized the principle of autonomy which had long been the bedrock in relations between science and government. Additionally, it sought to establish boundaries around federal involvement in research: “The government should not undertake what ‘can equally well be done by the enterprise of individual investigators.’ It should cooperate with universities but not compete with them, and should also confine itself ‘to increase and systemization of knowledge tending to “promote the general welfare”’ of the country.” Ibid., 216

Accordingly, U.S. Geological Survey head John Wesley Power suggested consolidation of existing federal scientific bureaus—except for those in the military and the Department of Agriculture—into a cabinet-level Department of Science, with its secretary selected by the president in consultation with NAS. Another proposal was to combine most non-military science bureaus under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.

Non-government scientists were dubious. In his committee testimony, Alexander Agassiz of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology sounded the oft-invoked themes of pluralism and autonomy, casting his argument in terms of what Dupree calls classical laissez faire political rhetoric: “Moderate centralization, allowing of great competition, is the ideal of scientific activity, and the government should limit its support of science to such work as is within neither the province nor the capacity of the individuals or of the universities, or of associations and scientific societies.” Ibid., 221

In the end, no such consolidation came about, but the Allison Commission's consideration of such a proposal is worthy of note as the first attempt to establish a central institutional basis for a federal science policy.

Rise of the u.s. academic research sector

Aside from the land grant colleges established as a result of the 1862 Morrill Act, the first American universities with faculty expected to engage in research as well as teaching were created after the Civil War. Richard C . Atkinson and William A. Blanpied, “Research Universities: Core of the U.S. Science and Technology System,” Technology in Society 30 (2008), 30-48. The first colleges to become universities were those that had been established during the colonial period. Harvard, for example, created the Jefferson Physical Laboratory—the first American university facility devoted exclusively to research and teaching in a single scientific discipline—in the early 1870s. Newer universities founded after the Civil War soon took the lead. Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876, was the first American university established as a research university from the outset; during its first two decades, it produced more Ph.D. degrees than Harvard and Yale combined. National Science Foundation Division of Policy Research and Analysis, The State of Academic Science and Engineering (Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1990), 33. Johns Hopkins was followed by Clark University (1889), Stanford University (1891), and the University of Chicago (1892). By the turn of the century, several state universities had also become leading research institutions. Among them were the universities of California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. In 1906, James Cattell counted the top one thousand scientists in the nation. Based on the number of scientists in this group, the fifteen leading American research universities were (in descending order): Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, California, Yale, Michigan, MIT, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Stanford, Princeton, Minnesota, and Illinois. James McKeen Cattell, “A Statistical Study of Men of Science,” Science 24 (1906).

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, A history of federal science policy from the new deal to the present. OpenStax CNX. Jun 26, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11210/1.2
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