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Reviewed by:
  • Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890–1960
  • Jason N. Krupar
Patrick J. McGrath , Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 248 pp. $39.95.

Patrick McGrath's Scientists, Business, and the State covers the changing structure and policy responsibilities of the American scientific community in the twentieth century. By exploring the experiences of elite scientists, McGrath demonstrates the successful integration of business organizational concepts and the desires of the scientific community. The Manhattan Project, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the careers of science elites such as Vannevar Bush are the principle examples of this integration. However, the success in forging a collaborative relationship between [End Page 130] science and government led to a reduction of scientific influence in national policy when hawkish officials bullied the science community in the 1950s. The apparatus that had been carefully built and managed by elites such as Vannevar Bush during World War II was turned against them and used either to stifle opposition or to discredit critics. McGrath's account of the militarization of American science reads like a tragedy, particularly because many scientific elites recognized what was going on yet refused to challenge the militants in public. The lack of vocal expert dissent contributed to the redefinition of scientific expertise. By the 1960s, political and military leaders regarded scientists not as collaborative partners but as subordinate technicians expected to supply innovations on demand.

In the first chapter, McGrath presents the origins of the new, cooperative, and scientifically based culture that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using the careers of two businessmen who built scientific institutions— Henry T. Towne and Theodore Vail—as case studies, McGrath argues that a critical change took place during the Progressive era that affected the science community and the country as a whole. That change involved the professionalization of expertise and the creation of national institutions that dominated local and regional entities. Large corporations controlled major segments of the economy and drew scientists to them with promises of funds and the opportunity to benefit society. "Scientists and the businesspeople who increasingly relied on them in companies," McGrath writes, "depicted the growth of their profession and their companies as part of an evolutionary process that was natural" (p.27). By using apolitical strategies, the scientific elites forged a new role for themselves in business and enlarged the importance of expertise so much that it overshadowed other social issues. By the 1920s and 1930s, according to McGrath, science, business, and policy elites had built a national consensus based on the corporate-scientific model of social order, which identified scientific innovation as a key to national progress. The Great Depression challenged this national creed of corporate-science institutionalism.

In the next chapter, on the science politics of the 1930s, McGrath again focuses on the lives of two scientific elites, Frank Jewett and Karl Compton. Despite the economic collapse of the 1930s, the science-based corporations and elites survived the disaster by maintaining their rhetoric and avoiding overt politics. McGrath claims that two consequences flowed from the actions of elites like Jewett and Compton. The blending of the corporate needs and professional desires of scientists restricted the public political roles of corporate scientists. Likewise, these restraints induced scientific leaders like Compton, Bush, and Ernest Lawrence to turn to the state as a funding source. This shift engendered conflicts within the science community as leaders debated exactly how to achieve social progress and to define their relationship with the state. As the country prepared for war, collaboration with business and government assumed greater importance for these elites. McGrath points out that leaders like Compton not only believed in being cooperative partners with corporate and governmental executives but also willingly adopted a politically neutral role. Science was seen as critical to national defense and prosperity. [End Page 131]

McGrath writes that "scientists got out of the engine room and onto the deck of the ship of state" (p.68) during the war years. His third chapter explores the establishment and perpetuation of state-sponsored science in the 1940s, using the careers of Vannevar Bush and James Conant as...