Boffey, Phillip M. The Brain Bank of America: An Inquiry into the Politics of Science. New

 

Boffey, Phillip M. The Brain Bank of America: An Inquiry into the Politics of Science. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.

This book should be identified as one promoted by Public Interest Research and Ralph Nader. It
was Nader who promoted this effort and should be credited for the publication. He also wrote the
Introduction.

Big Science involves enormous sums of money, millions of people, great universities and
constitutes an institution here in the United States. It is no wonder then that it displays the games
and gambits one usually identifies as politics. Here is a wonderful exposition of the politics of
Big Science as played in the halls of the National Academy of Science, the preeminent scientific
institution in the United States.

The games began at the beginning:

Legend has it that the Academy was called into being during the Civil War by farsighted
statesmen who realized that they needed the help of scientists to solve the critical problems then
facing the nation. The Academy's first president, Alexander Dallas Bache, propounded this
inspiring version of genesis in 1864 when he praised the ‘resolute Congressmen who, ‘with an
elevated policy worthy of the great nation which they represented, too occasion to bring the
scientific men around them in council on scientific matters.' As late as the mid-1960s, an
Academy centennial volume was still promulgating this myth when it asserted that Congress
called upon fifty scientists to found the Academy because ‘the Civil War revealed the need of our
government for scientific advice.'

The only trouble with that thesis is that it stands history on its head. As chronicled in A. Hunter
Dupree's Science in the Federal Government, the classic work in its field, a cabal of scientists
seized the opportunity presented by the war to push through the creation of a national academy
that would be a worthy counterpart of the European academies. They drafted a bill that would
accomplish their aims, listed their friends as incorporators, and persuaded a now-forgotten
senator who had never shown any interest in science, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, to
introduce the legislation. The bill sailed through both houses on March 3, 1863, without debate
in the closing hours of a lame-duck session; President Abraham Lincoln evidently signed it into
law the same evening. The most eminent American scientists of the day was outraged. ‘I do not
think,' Joseph Henry wrote to a colleague, ‘that one or two individuals have a moral right to
choose for the body of scientific men in the country who shall be the members of a National
Academy and they by a political ruse obtain the sanction of a law of Congress for the act.

...The Academy's controversial genesis caused such resentment that the institution was forced to
abandon any immediate hope of playing an influential role in government affairs. Scientists who
had been frozen out by the founding cabal protested vigorously; many of the original
incorporators resigned; others tried to dissolve the Academy; rival organizations were formed;
and attendance at Academy meetings fell sharply. Ironically, the Academy was saved by Joseph
Henry - the same Henry who had protested the ‘political ruse' by which the Academy was
founded. Apparently fearful that the prestige of American science would suffer if the Academy
died, Henry, as the Academy's second president, devised a scheme to save the new organization
by changing its character. He enlarged the membership so that some of the ‘outs' could be taken
in; and he emphasized the honorary aspects of the Academy - election was to signify important
contributions to scientific knowledge - while downgrading practical service to the government.
Today, for most of the American scientific community, this is the most important aspect of the
Academy. Every year the existing members elect a limited number of outstanding scientists to
their ranks. The competition is intense, and admission to the Academy is highly prized as a
measure of professional success... the reputed cream of the scientific world. The members are
scattered around at various universities, industries and government agency. They seldom act as a
cohesive unit. Most have little to do with the actual work of the organization. (pp. 5-7)

In terms of prestige, membership in the NAS ranks just behind the Nobel prize. The eminence
provides the Academy with great prestige and authority but, as with all such academies, the
membership is not necessarily the best. The members are not necessarily the most outstanding in
the country in terms of "scientific creativity." "This is because a number of factors - the structure
of the Academy membership, personal jealousies, behind-the-scenes politicking, and biases of
some of the Academy's officer - occasionally conspire to cloud the vision of the Academy as it
searches the land for distinguished scientists who merit election." (p. 21)

It is reported here that a study of membership as of August 1969 by Don E. Kash, director of the
Science and Public Policy Program of the University of Oklahoma, studied the 845 members in
terms of background. "Kash's most striking finding was that membership in the Academy is
dominated by scientists who had been educated at and employed by a handful of departments in a
small number of universities - even though other evidence ... suggests that top scientific talent is
spread among a broader range of institutions."

Kash found that more than 70 percent of the Academy members who had been educated in the
United States had earned their highest degree at one of ten elite universities, while more than 90
percent had been trained in just twenty universities. The key factor in election seemed to be
affiliation with a particular department within a university. A mere five departments - at Caltech,
Harvard, Rochester, Wisconsin and Yale - had trained 75 percent of the scientists in the
Academy's generic section... Three departments - at Harvard, Chicago and Yale - accounted for
73 percent in Anthropology; and another three-=at Harvard, Chicago and Johns Hopkins -
accounted for 64 percent in microbiology. Just two departments - at Harvard and California - had
trained 55 percent in zoology; and two - at M.I.T. and Caltech - trained 54 percent in
engineering; and two others - at Harvard and Chicago - trained 54 percent in psychology. (pp.
25-26)

How is it that so few department within so few universities are able to dominant the Academy?
There are several conceivable explanations, but the one favored by Kash and his colleagues is
that the Academy's disciplinary sections, which play that key role in nominating candidates for
the Academy, serve as a self-perpetuating in-group. (p. 27)

According to Boffey, the vast majority of members of the Academy have little to do with the
influential reports and recommendations which are prepared in the name of the Academy. These
are prepared by staff members and consultants and are sometimes flawed but mostly pedestrian.
"(T)he Academy does not always appoint the very best experts to handle its advisory tasks. All
too often it puts together committees which are not the most qualified to deal with the problem
presented. This happens because of the Academy's ‘buddy system' tends to draw talent from a
relatively narrow slice of the scientific community. Some committees are dominated by small,
inbred cliques that are out of touch with differing viewpoints. And other lack the expertise
needed to consider an issue fully." (p. 46)

"The bureaucracy also tends to avoid controversial appointments with the result that committees
are often dominated by bland ‘Establishment' types, while shunning the activist boat-rockers."
(p. 46)

"The committees also tend to be middle-aged..." "Women and minorities are underrepresented..."
(p. 47)

The committees are reported to be agonizing slow, to consign enormous amounts of work to
part-time workers, and to lack vigor in investigating social and economic goals.

While the Academy claims to be unbiased and scientific in its workings, it is clear that both
government's power of the purse and industries' clout influence the behaviors of the scientists on
the committees. As a result of government influence and industrial power, political figures are
able to pick and choose rather easily the scientists who will provide the kinds of scientific
judgments which they want. Just so with industry. Scientists may be biased in various ways and
unconscious bias is impossible to eliminate: by controlling the selection process by means of
which committees of scientific investigators are chosen, and with prior knowledge of the
positions taken by the proposed members, government and industry can effectively control the
nominations to committee positions. The government bureaucracy and the industrialists combine
with cooperative scientists in the production of the sort of science designed to reinforce the status
quo.

Finally, the academy does not wish to clash with government and with industry. The scientific
community has interests which can best be served by cooperating with the status quo. But if the
scientific community has an interest in cooperating with industry and government in promoting
their interests, that same community has an interest in promoting its own interests. Science may
be viewed as an institution which promotes itself and, in the political arena, acts in its own best
interests. It is not merely a matter of not rocking the boat, but a matter of securing the most
favorable gains for science itself. Science, then, is not without its own political interest and it has
found, down through the years, that it is in its own best interest to serve well the government and
the industries to which it owes so much.

Boffey then goes into case histories of committee work on major issues in mid-century American
(and now) in chapters dealing with: Radioactive Waste Disposal, the SST, Defoliation. Food
Protection; Pesticides, and Tetraethyl lead. All of these were essentially gambits and games
within the politics of science. Not one was resolved by scientists using scientific methods.
Consider that Boffey subtitles his chapter on Pesticides with "The Academy versus Rachel
Carson." The chapter on the SST is subtitled: "The Atomic Energy Commission Brings the
Academy to Heel." The chapter on defoliation in Viet Nam is subtitled "The Academy as Shield
for the Pentagon." In all these important, critical cases the Academy displayed itself far short of
the ideal goals for which it had presumptively been established. The details of each of the
chapters make for fascinating, if sorry reading with the heroes and the villains parading on and
off the political stage which is power politics in Washington. For all these cases, science does not
display itself to be the institution stereotyped in its Boy Scout Image. On the contrary, it is a sad
telling of selling rationalizations of the status quo.

The book ends with recommendations for improving the Academy. The recommendations were
provided by Philip Handler, then the Academy's president. Handler was trying to correct the
situation, and the Academy: "If the public interest would be served by far-sighted, highly
competent, scrupulously objective studies - which, after all, is supposedly what the Academy
seeks to perform - then the Academy, in many cases, falls short of serving the public interest." (p.
246) And his recommendations include revisions of the ‘buddy system," and the infusion of
"new blood" into the Academy and well as improving the system of "peer review." He saw some
of the problems. Whether these proposals have influenced the Academy since 1975 is another
matter entirely.