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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 394-396
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The Establishment of Science in America: 150 Years of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Written by three highly respected historians of science, with a cheerful preface by Stephen J. Gould and a brief introductory overview by Keith Benson and Jane Maienschein, The Establishment of Science in America is a set of three essays that together chronicle the history of the AAAS from its origin in 1848 as a small group of geologists and naturalists to its present-day status as a major scientific institution with a worldwide presence. Because the authors are so intimately acquainted with the primary source material, the story is to a great degree an insider's view of the internal politics of AAAS as it moved to implement its founding mandate, and of how its members and leaders perceived and adapted to its changing social, political, and scientific environment. During this evolutionary process AAAS had repeatedly to confront issues related to the tension inherent in the promise to maintain an open, democratic organization without compromising the standards of an essentially elite activity, namely, science.
In the lead essay, "Creating a Forum for Science," Sally Kohlstedt covers the first fifty years of the AAAS. The 1840s were a time when practicing scientists [End Page 394] keenly felt the need for a venue that would facilitate communication among scientists, overcome isolation, and develop professional connections; they sought to weed out pseudoscience, set standards of quality, increase visibility, speak with a coherent voice, and, not the least, pursue government patronage. The AAAS was created to support these goals. It would have annual meetings in different locations in order to consolidate support of local scientific societies, and it would publish its reports in its journal, the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Changing the location of the annual meeting overcame much of the problem of geographic isolation, but the issue of individual participation created controversy, both over the status of membership and the locus of decision-making authority within the organization. This conflict was eventually "resolved" by maintaining an open membership policy (so as to remain "democratic") and creating the new, more prestigious membership categories of associate member, fellow, and honorary fellow. By adding the requirement that elected officers be fellows, decision making was handed to the upper echelons of the organization.
By the end of the nineteenth century the AAAS had achieved a respectable measure of success in creating a visible forum for science. However, the forces of professionalization and specialization were challenging both its integrity and its ability to publicize scientific results. As detailed in the second essay, Michael Sokal's "Promoting Science in a New Century," the challenge was met when AAAS formed an affiliation with Science magazine, which had been purchased in 1894 by James McKeen Cattell. Under the editorship of the ambitious and energetic Cattell, the journal gave extensive coverage to AAAS matters and helped to increase the membership many times over. It became the official organ of AAAS in 1904. However, although Cattell raised Science to a place of prominence in America and essentially revived a faltering AAAS, he gradually consolidated his own power within the organization to the extent that he treated "AAAS as his personal fiefdom" (p. 77), and came to be seen as an obstacle to further change. His influence continued until his death in 1944 and even afterwards.
The postwar years presented AAAS with a greatly changed social and scientific environment. In the third essay, "Shifting Science from People to Programs," Bruce Lewenstein relates how the growth of AAAS and the further diversification of the scientific community made its administration unwieldy, propelling its transformation into an organization with a broader interdisciplinary reach, run...