Science, Freedom, and the American Way

By Audra J. Wolfe, Philadelphia

By clicking on the above, you can listen to Audra’s paper from iCHSTM 2013 on which the below post was based. For a full listing of audio recordings of papers featured on this blog, please click on, “Audio” in the above menu.

U.S. social scientists are worried. Over the past three months, conservative attacks on federal funding for the social sciences through the National Science Foundation (NSF) have escalated. In March, the U.S. Senate voted to bar funding for research in political science unless it makes some direct contribution to national security or economic growth. In April, U.S. House Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) introduced a bill, the “High Quality Research Act” that would require the director of the NSF to explain the justification for individual grants to a Congressional committee. Smith stepped up the political pressure a few weeks later when he requested the full peer review trail for five projects funded by the agency. Cora Marrett, the NSF’s director, refused to hand over the documents.

The American scientific community’s opposition to Congressional oversight has been vocal and predictable, but not particularly productive. Their response is based on the old idea, articulated most clearly by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 classic, Science: The Endless Frontier, that federally funded science works best when it is overseen by scientists, not the government. During the NSF’s heyday in the middle of the Cold War, political leaders embraced the language of basic research funding (even if the reality was somewhat more complicated) as a way to showcase not only America’s scientific talent, but also the idea that American science functioned as a community of individuals free from government interference. The supposed contrast with the Soviet system was usually unstated, but nonetheless obvious.

The NSF approach to funding scientific research has certain merits, but it’s hardly inherent to the scientific process (or even necessarily defensible in a democracy). Yet here we are, more than two decades after the Cold War has ended, using the same language of “scientific freedom” to defend funding for academic scientific research. My current research project, which I’ll be previewing at ICHSTM, looks at how these lasting notions of science, freedom, and the American way became so deeply intertwined during the Cold War period, both within and beyond the United States’ borders.

Given their institutional interests, it makes sense that postwar American scientists and scientific administrators—men like Vannevar Bush—embraced these kinds of claims. More surprising is the extent to which ideas about “science and freedom” found their way into official U.S. foreign policy. Starting in the early 1950s, officials at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Information Agency, the Federal Council for Science and Technology, and even the National Security Council (NSC) debated the best ways to publicize and export the American system of science to U.S. allies in the so-called Free World. An NSC discussion document from November 1960, for example, entitled “Strengthening the Free World Position in Science and Technology,” urged Western nations to “devote as much of their national income as possible to encourage research and development appropriate to their needs”; specifically, they should invest 0.2% of gross national product on basic research. At the same time, the document cautioned that evaluation of such research would be difficult, nigh impossible: “The physicist or chemist cannot predict when a new particle will be identified, or when a hoped-for reaction will occur. . . . Insistence on annual reviews thus tends to force advance evaluation, project by project, on the basis of paper predictions that are too often unreliable.” This wasn’t a message designed by scientists for an audience in Congress, but rather a discussion document circulated to—among others—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of the CIA, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense.

Wolfe - Science-and-Freedom-Program

Invitation to the 1953 Science and Freedom Conference,
Records of the Department of State (Records Relating to International Conferences, 1949-1958), U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Similar messages cropped up in cultural activities funded by the CIA and carried out by such private partners as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). In 1953, the CCF hosted an international conference on “Science and Freedom” in Hamburg, Germany. In a funding application to the Rockefeller Foundation (the CCF officially obtained its funding from legitimate foundations, including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations), the CCF explained that the meeting would give “scientists of the free word an opportunity to meet, not as official representatives of government or organizations, but as members of the international scientific community.” Topics for discussion included science and ideology, the fate of science in totalitarian countries, and whether “planning” for science was possible or appropriate in free nations. The Asia Foundation, another supposedly private organization that was in reality backed by the CIA until 1967, likewise encouraged the establishment of American-style, scientist-led science policy planning boards in countries on the Chinese perimeter.

My archival research in the records of the State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, the NSF, and the Rockefeller, Ford, and Asia Foundations suggests that these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. Conferences, lecture tours, exchange programs, textbook translations, and science clubs promoted the idea that science functions best without government oversight. More than a vague postwar ideology, this was official U.S. policy, both at home and abroad. Of course, in reality, U.S. investments in applied R&D, particularly for military applications, dwarfed funding for basic research by several orders of magnitude, but this fact did not deter American science attachés, State Department science advisors, embassy officials, and other low-level diplomats from actively promoting a vision of science that stressed independent, undirected scientific research.

But with the end of the Cold War, scientific self-governance no longer packs the same ideological punch. Appeals to scientific freedom are comfortable and familiar, but they’re not going to save the NSF.

For more information on the cultural Cold War, two great places to start are Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Harvard, 2008) and Kenneth Osgood’s Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Kansas, 2006). Mary Jo Nye’s Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science (Chicago, 2011) explains how the trope of “science and freedom” found its way into postwar philosophy of science, including Polanyi’s involvement with the CCF.

Audra J. Wolfe is a writer, editor, and historian based in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America. This blog post is based on the paper “Science, Freedom, and the American Way,” which she is due to give at iCHSTM as part of symposium T182, “Post-Second World War Science and Technology”  on Tuesday, 23 July 2013.

You can follow Audra on Twitter @ColdWarScience.

4 thoughts on “Science, Freedom, and the American Way

  1. Pingback: Science, Freedom, and the American Way | iCHSTM 2013 blog | jbrittholbrook

  2. Thanks for this post.

    The title reminds me of an old Richie Havens joke. He used to say, “Remember that Superman TV series? When Superman used to say, ‘Truth, Justice, AND the American Way!’ ?”

    Richie says, “Well… I always thought that Truth and Justice WERE the American Way!”

  3. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #61: to iCHSTM and beyond | Wellcome Library

  4. Pingback: Conference Preview: ICHSTM | Audra J. Wolfe

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