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Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 1 May 31, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Warren Weaver

Warren Weaver

Via Twitter, Audra Wolfe has called my attention to a passage in intellectual historian David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century Intellectual History (1998), in which he discusses the debate over federal policy for the funding of scientific research in the immediate postwar period.

The specific issue at hand is a letter from the Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver (1894-1978), to the New York Times, written at the end of August 1945, in which he argues against proponents of the strategic planning of scientific research who had criticized Vannever Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier report.  

According to Hollinger, Weaver argued in his letter that, during the war, (in Hollinger’s words):

the sciences had not been advanced by government coordination at all.  The recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science. Contrary to popular belief, the Organization for [sic, "Office of"] Scientific Research and Development was not a model for doing scientific research; what his office had done during the war was merely to coordinate the “practical application of basic scientific knowledge.”

The statement—particularly the bit about the atomic bomb—is extraordinary, in that it appears to reveal Weaver to be an ideologue for scientific freedom, willing to badly distort the record of activities of the OSRD and the Manhattan Project in order to advance his views.  Hollinger’s claim has been repeated by Jon Agar in his Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (2012).  However, the passage neither accurately reflects Weaver’s actual words, nor, more broadly, the terms of the postwar debate over the planning of science, the reality of “basic” or “pure” science, and the need for scientific freedom.

To get a handle on this debate, let’s go back to Britain in 1939, and, specifically, to the Marxist crystallographer J. D. Bernal’s The Social Function of Science.  That book was an extraordinary survey of British scientific research, and a strenuous argument for the planning of science for the social good.  I would characterize Bernal’s argument for planning as premised on two points:

1) Academic science was unduly isolated from industrial research because of a bourgeois conceit that it is a pure form of intellectual inquiry.  In my favorite line in the book, Bernal complained that it was thought of as little more than an “amusing pastime,” and lamented: “It has all the qualities which make millions of people addicts of the crossword puzzle or the detective story.”

J. D. Bernal

J. D. Bernal (1901-1971)

Bernal believed, correctly, that academic research was often inspired by practical industrial problems, and that it could be conducted in better concert with industrial research to the benefit of both.  In 1941, his ally, Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899-1983), would reframe the long-term history of science in view of its connection to economic and social history in his book The Social Relations of Science.

2) Bernal believed that the isolationist conceit of academic science blinded science’s leaders to the capitalistic and militaristic interests that scientific knowledge and labor were in fact serving, and which his survey of British scientific research so clearly illustrated. (Dwight Eisenhower, by the way, would make essentially the same point in his 1961 farewell speech, at least with regard to militarism). By demonstrating that science, economics, and politics were inseparable, Bernal hoped to inspire “scientific workers” to political activism, which would help create institutions that would marshall science to serve more pressing social needs.

Bernal’s opposition to the concept of pure scientific research, and his call for the planning of science, were taken by many as a threat to the freedom of scientific inquiry.  In 1940, some of his opponents, including physical chemist Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), and geneticist-eugenicist John Baker (1900-1984), founded the Society for Freedom in Science.  Bernal and his allies insisted that the scientific community would coordinate its labor spontaneously, just as the academic community did, once institutions had been set up enabling connections between science and social need to be perceived and supported.

In reality, the differences in views between the sides were not so great as either side portrayed.  Just as proponents of planning did allow for the value of knowledge without immediate practical application, so opponents (in spite of their continual emphasis on the integrity of basic research) generally allowed that the institutional organization of research, and the creation of links between universities and industry were good things.

Nevertheless, there were still important differences in the views of each side, which brings us to 1945 and the battle over what the proper lessons of the World War II experience were.  We will concentrate on the pieces to which Weaver was specifically responding.

Following the publication of Bush’s Endless Frontier report to President Truman, Waldemar Kaempffert (1877-1956), science editor for the New York Times, criticized it in a July 22 article in that it seemed to call for “a glorified Rockefeller Foundation to make long-time grants-in-aid on a ‘matching basis’ to universities, colleges and engineering schools.  Following the practice of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the proposed national foundation would make a contract with the grantee, but would give him the utmost freedom in carrying out the project.”

This was objectionable to Kaempffert because it did not sufficiently take on board the lessons of the OSRD’s wartime experience.  It made “no assurance of continuity of research in a given field,” which was a lesson that the “great foundations” were “beginning to realize.”  The clear organization of the OSRD, which produced “brilliant results,” was to be “abandoned” in favor of an ad hoc “laissez-faire system, much like that adopted by the philanthropic foundations.”

For Kaempffert the overriding concern for the freedom of academic research was misplaced, as evidenced by the results of Nobel Prize-worthy fundamental research already coming out of industrial laboratories.  There could be no appeal to the differences in the kinds of research that took place in different venues:

The plain truth is that there is no difference between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science. Science is science, whether it is engaged in solving the problem of television or the constitution of matter. Nor is there any difference between the research program of an industrial and a university laboratory.

For clues on how to organize a unified academic-industrial science, Kaempffert looked not only to the OSRD and industry, but the Soviet Union.  

Kaempffert made it clear that he had “no brief for the Marxist ideology which has permeated Russian science ever since the days of Lenin.”  He condemned the interference that cast Albert Einstein’s relativity as “counter-revolutionary” and that “made it hard for Vavilov, one of the great geneticists of our time, to apply the known principles of heredity…”  (I gather it had not yet come to light that N. I. Vavilov had been arrested in 1940, sentenced to death in 1941, and died in a Soviet prison in 1943.)

In spite of the “ideological limitations imposed on it,” Kaempffert hailed the “astonishing progress” in Soviet science, which he argued derived from the way the Soviets had “mapped out the whole field of science.” Russia was “rapidly assuming leadership in biology,” and was “doing work as good as Americans are doing” in the physical sciences.

What Kaempffert hoped would happen was that a new organization for supporting science would actively seek out and solicit promising research projects, rather than relying upon a researcher to “step forward himself.”  It would do this by undertaking the “mapping” of science that he believed had taken place in the Soviet Union, which would “reveal gaps in our knowledge and see to it that science is developed rationally in every field.”

Kaempffert answered critics by arguing that there was “no reason why the democratic way of science should not be preserved with a well-knit organization, planning and competent supervision.”  He argued, “If the mapping has been done thoroughly, somewhat in the manner indicated by J. D. Bernal in his ‘Social Function of Science,’ good projects developed by university professors can be easily fitted into the map.”

In Hollinger’s reading of this debate, “Bush might not have won so easy a victory in the science policy debates with [Sen. Harley] Kilgore and Kaempffert had the latter been equipped with an alternative set of ideas about knowledge and society that were reasonably well developed, and that had been sanctioned by extensive public use….  Bush’s opponents had to make do with arguments that did not speak effectively to the apparently special nature of ‘basic science.'”  

Hollinger does not note that Kaempffert explicitly denied that any such special nature exists.  Instead, he castigates Weaver for “ignoring Kaempffert’s repeated commitment to basic science.”

Meanwhile, according to Hollinger, “Bush and Bush’s allies in the foundations and the universities invoked the received wisdom about knowledge and society, and they added the very pointed, Red-baiting charge that Kaempffert was trying to impose totalitarianism on American science.”

This strikes me as a clear violation of good practice in intellectual history, wherein Kaempffert’s ideas about “knowledge and society” are taken, at least in their essence, to be correct and progressive—their failure to be persuasive is explained in terms of their insufficient development.  Bush’s and Weaver’s ideas, meanwhile, are cast as antiquated “received wisdom,” their success bolstered by crass polemics. Hollinger is stacking the deck.  He knows who deserved to win, and thus must explain why they did not.

I hope this post shows that Kaempffert’s ideas were perhaps not as clear-eyed about “knowledge and society” as Hollinger would lead us to believe.  In Pt. 2, we will take a closer look at the effect of the atomic bomb on this discourse, and we will take a closer—and I hope fairer—look than Hollinger does at Weaver’s contribution to it.

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1. audrajwolfe - May 31, 2014

Thanks for this. But you didn’t get the part I really wanted to know: What did Weaver actually say? That will have to wait for Part 2, I suppose.

What struck me the most when re-reading Hollinger’s piece was how deeply embedded in U.S. intellectual history it was, and how utterly uninterested in non-U.S. ideas. There’s a paragraph or two (remember, I was reading the 1990 journal article version, not the book essay version) on British discussions of scientific planning, but that’s about it. When Hollinger wrote that Kaempffert et al lacked access to a “reasonably developed set of ideas” on this topic, I charitably assumed that what he meant was that Kaempffert et al hadn’t read Bernal on this topic. The claim makes a lot less sense if Kaempffert is actively referring to Bernal as a model. Similarly, when discussing Bush’s ideas in contrast to Polanyi’s, Hollinger simply says that Polanyi’s work on this topic wasn’t yet terribly well known in the U.S. In retrospect, the article/essay only makes sense when seen as an exercise in understanding how U.S. actors built their own, indigenous concepts of science and freedom–an approach that doesn’t quite make sense if they’re really importing all of them from the UK.

And yes, you are correct re: Vavilov. While rumors swirled about his fate, there was no firm knowledge on this point in 1945 (to my knowledge).

Will Thomas - May 31, 2014

Thanks Audra. Sorry about not actually getting to Weaver. Things were getting too long, and it was important to actually state the full picture of what he was reacting to. It’s definitely the focus of Pt. 2, which I’m going to try and bang out quickly, since it’s really just summarizing primary sources.

I imagine that in talking about the lack of development of Kaempffert’s ideas, Hollinger’s referring to his denial of the basic-applied distinction, without finding something more workable. But, unlike Bernal, I don’t think Kaempffert was so interested in answering objections about the place of impractical knowledge. Later, in his response to Weaver, he clarifies his “science is science” remark by reference to the uniformity of scientific method.

In any case, I think he is actually pretty committed to not drawing distinctions between types of science, because it is central to his vision of planned science encompassing all science, which, I was surprised to find, is in fact pretty managerial, what with its reference to “competent supervision.” Whatever his protests that participation in the new organization was voluntary, I can see why Weaver would get nervous.

On the British-American difference, I skipped Kaempffert’s observation that Bush’s national foundation was loosely modeled on the British University Grants Committee.

Also, on the peculiarities of the American discussion, and the fact that this discussion is taking place within larger intellectual currents, it’s abundantly clear that Kaempffert is hostile to the big American private philanthropies. I get the sense this has as much to do with a larger debate over whether private interests or the state should exercise the most influence over national welfare, as it does with his perception that they were not very efficient at promoting scientific development. Obviously, it’s not a discussion you get in Britain.

Finally, thanks for the clarification on the Vavilov point.

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