Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 569-571
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Patrick J. McGrath. Scientists, Business, and the State, 1890-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. x + 248 pp. ISBN 0-8078-2655-3, $39.95.
Scientists have long used their professional expertise in attempts to legitimize themselves as agents of social and political change. In Scientists, Business, and the State, Patrick McGrath ably depicts the evolving nature of scientists' social visions while chronicling their increasing marginalization in public policy issues. Part history of science and part intellectual history, this book illustrates the paradoxical role of science in the public and political arenas: As scientists became ever more influential as the self-proclaimed creators of American prosperity, they lost their ability to communicate directly with the public, to influence political decisions, and to be considered as anything other than sycophants who acquiesced to what McGrath labels "scientific militarism."
McGrath understands that this process was not preordained; it stemmed from choices made by human actors. He offers readers a prosopography of scientists. Henry Towne created a "Museum of the Peaceful Arts" that he hoped would solidify established class relationships by teaching the deferential masses the wisdom of ceding power to elites. Theodore Vail defended monopoly power by elevating scientists to positions of social responsibility. Vail understood that he could provide a vital consumer product (an integrated national telephone network), along with a vision of abundance and social harmony. During the 1920s, Frank Jewett saw scientists as public experts whose responsibilities transcended their corporate allegiances. Unlike his corporate sponsors, Jewett recognized science's potentially deleterious effects, foreshadowing Cold War concerns regarding the destructive nature of atomic energy.
On the eve of World War II Vannevar Bush, James Conant, and Ernest Lawrence solidified what McGrath clearly feels was an unholy [End Page 569] alliance between scientists and the state. They sidestepped such thorny issues as class conflict and the allocation of political power and did not try to define scientific or social "progress." In attempting to distance themselves from the political process, scientists hoped to inject dispassionate scientific rationality into the military. Instead, the military co-opted the scientists' message, making them the unquestioning servants of military goals that were not just apolitical but patently undemocratic.
McGrath rather presumptuously suggests that, during the Cold War, "Bush and especially Conant were directly responsible for implementing a meritocratic culture in America" (p. 96). As David Lilienthal discovered, state-sponsored science in the interest of national defense embroiled scientists in Machiavellian politics while marginalizing their goals of progressive individualism. Edward Teller stressed the virtues of progress, as earlier scientists had done, but, though progress in the 1920s offered open access to consumer goods, scientific militarism was of necessity secretive. It excluded the public from the "benefits" of atomic weapons and excluded scientists from public or private debate over the morality of the nuclear arms race or the dangers to democracy inherent in a garrison state. The destruction of J. Robert Oppenheimer's career indicated that scientists could not easily question the subservient role of science in relation to the state. Ironically, scientists had sown the seeds of their own destruction; by advocating a collaborative meritocracy rather than contentious involvement in the political process, they were unable simultaneously to collaborate with and criticize the decisions of political elites.
McGrath freely admits that his book "does not represent an exploration of untouched historical ground" (p. 5)—and certainly the Manhattan Project, attacks on Oppenheimer, and conflicts between corporate researchers and profit-oriented senior executives have been well and frequently described elsewhere. Although McGrath acknowledges the presence of dissent within the scientific communities, these dissenters receive short shrift, leaving one wondering if the scientists he profiles were representative of the scientific community as a whole. As a synthesis, much of this book is based on readily available published sources, which is fine; but did the views of McGrath's chosen scientists, often expressed in corporate publicity materials and nostalgic autobiographies, represent reality as it existed or reality as they perceived it? Beyond that, how did government officials and the public receive...