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In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 944-945 | 10.1353/tech.0.0360

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Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow is an impressive book; it provides a thorough, sophisticated, and convincing account of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) from its inception under Eisenhower to its demise under Nixon. Wang traces PSAC’s origins after Sputnik, through its central role in redefining the place of scientific expertise during the last years of the “liberal consensus” under Eisenhower and Kennedy, to the steady erosion of its influence as Vietnam-era politics polarized the nation under Johnson and Nixon. Particularly striking is the way that Wang balances attention to both detail and scope in his story. On one hand, he provides authoritative and fine-grained analyses of a number of seminal moments in PSAC’s history, and the history of the cold war more generally: the space program, test ban treaty, antiballistic missile debates, pesticide investigations, arms control, and “big science” projects such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. On the other hand, he is simultaneously able to keep the broad themes of his analysis in full view, dealing insightfully with a range of questions about science policy, cultural attitudes toward expertise, and shifting conceptions of the science/technology boundary.

Three particular features of PSAC provide the central themes of Wang’s book. The first, and perhaps most important, is that PSAC embodied an attitude of technological skepticism which stood in contrast to the “new wave of technological enthusiasm in Sputnik’s shadow” (p. 78). PSAC grew increasingly wary of using technology to solve problems that were really social or political in nature, and many of the episodes Wang describes—such as with the test ban treaty and the ABM debate—provide excellent illustrations of this point. Second, PSAC grew comfortable extrapolating from technical considerations to policy concerns, and thus “broke the spell against scientists’ participation in policymaking that was one of the legacies of the 1954 Oppenheimer case” (p. 141). Finally, PSAC “became a rare, technically competent voice for moderation that matched Eisenhower’s own political and fiscal conservatism” (p. 3).

The link between PSAC and Eisenhower is particularly important: one of the most compelling parts of Wang’s book is his analysis of how this remarkable convergence developed. The last years of Eisenhower’s presidency were, in some sense, the high-water mark for science advising in the cold war years, as the president and his science advisory committee shared a goal of moderating both the arms race and the rampant technological enthusiasm embodied in the influence of Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, and Lewis Strauss.

The theme of technological skepticism provides a solid foundation through which Wang can deliver a truly impressive range of analyses and insights; to a large extent, his history of PSAC becomes a history of the place of this brand of technological skepticism. Such skepticism explains both the successes under Eisenhower and its more limited role a decade later; PSAC eventually came under attack from both the political left (for not offering a more pointed critique) and the political right (for offering the critique at all). Technological skepticism also explains the constant tension between “science in policy” and “policy for science” that Wang successfully highlights; PSAC “tried to redeem the values of science” (p. 8) by advancing basic research as a means to moderate rampant technological enthusiasm.

Similarly, this attitude toward technology also explains how naturally PSAC was able to broaden the range of its activities in the 1960s, such as with its foray into environmental issues. For example, Wang argues that PSAC’s famous 1963 vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring reflected “not only its confirmation of her specific charges about pesticide abuse, but its sympathy for her philosophical critique of misguided technological enthusiasm” (p. 212).

In Sputnik’s Shadow is a very rich book, and it is difficult for a review to do full justice to the wealth of material and insight it contains. Early in Wang’s analysis he quotes Sally Gregory Kohlstedt’s argument that “institutional histories can be a powerful ‘point of convergence’ of intellectual, social, and cultural history of science” (p. 6), and his book more than fulfills the promise of such a claim. Historians of technology, science studies scholars, and...



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