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For Better or for Worse: The Marriage of Science and Government in the United States
For Better or for Worse: The Marriage of Science and Government in the United States. By Alfred K. Mann. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. xvi+240. $27.50.
In his first book, the well-received Shadow of a Star (1997), Alfred Mann, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, described the quest for evidence of neutrinos, a search in which he had participated. Mann's ability to write about complicated matters in a simple yet intelligent manner was amply demonstrated in that volume, and is shown again in For Better or for Worse, in which he ventures into the history of science and science policy to explore the relationship between the federal government and the scientific establishment in the years since World War II.
Mann focuses on the four nonmilitary federal agencies--the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Energy--as well as now defunct agencies that were once of great importance, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Using metaphors of courtship and marriage, he charts the development of these agencies in relationship to the scientific community, paying predominant attention to physics. A chapter titled "Love at First Sight" covers World War II, when the federal government turned to university scientists for help and when scientists, in turn, discovered the benefits--research support and prestige, among others--of a relationship with the federal government. Mann calls the decade after the war "Courtship," when scientists and the federal government laid the basis for a permanent collaboration and when the NSF and AEC were created. His discussion of the McCarthyite attack on Robert Oppenheimer's loyalty is cursory and somewhat unsympathetic, perhaps because this incident reveals the limits of the courtship metaphor. One member of the couple, it [End Page 825] seems, occasionally wielded a sledgehammer. Mann labels the 1955-65 period "Marriage," and sees it as a decade of harmony, when federal support of science was generous and few strings were attached.
The honeymoon ended when the Vietnam War began, accompanied by budgetary constraints, social unrest, anti-intellectual pressures, and challenges to the notion of a disinterested elite of experts. The nadir was reached under President Nixon, who abolished both the Office of Science and Technology and the President's Scientific Advisory Committee. During the decade after 1975, "Reconciliation," these offices were restored and research funding increased. The succeeding decade marked the celebration of the "Golden Anniversary," with scientists and the government once again in a relationship that Mann believes is necessary to our progress as a nation.
As a study of the relationship between science and the federal government, this book will not replace Bruce L. R. Smith's American Science Policy Since World War II (1990), which is both broader and more probing. But Mann's purpose is different. He makes no claim to having written a scholarly history, and, indeed, the bibliography shows little acquaintance with recent literature on the history of science and federal patronage. As Mann notes, his own career coincided with the period about which he writes, beginning with his work, while still a University of Virginia graduate student, on the Manhattan Project. Like many scientists who were "present at the creation" (p. xv) of the modern science-government collaboration, he views the early decades with nostalgia. This book is best seen as a paean to, and a plea for, the kind of relationship that Vannevar Bush outlined, more than fifty years ago, in his proposal for the National Science Foundation, and that Daniel Kevles, in The Physicists (1977), referred to as "best-science elitism." While it will strike some readers as old fashioned, it will clearly appeal to others, including those who appreciate an author who does not split infinitives and knows the correct use of the...