The history of science is written by the “victors.” So find your own narrative.

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The chosen version of the history of science defines “science” and shapes the present culture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No one is in charge of defining science for all.

Very few graduate programs require even one class in the history of science: many do not even offer one. Individual labs or departments may tell their own history, and several books on the development of molecular biology are popular around labs, but the philosophical situating of science in society’s history or philosophy seldom is institutionally done.

Yet this history- in all of its various interpretations- shapes the day to day life of the present day scientist. Each individual’s choice of project, likelihood of getting funded, expectation of a job, and relationship to the larger culture, is entangled in and influenced by past events and present conceptions.

One way one can understand the forces that affect the 21st century scientist’s work is through an interpretation of the influences on the fields of molecular biology and biomedical research. One subjective list might be:

ïFrom amateur science to professionalism.

ïLand-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

ï(The revolution in physics after 1900).

ïPeer review grows in importance.

ïWorld War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

ïThe unraveling of the properties of DNA.

ïThe Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and the beginning of biotech.

ïThe cloning of the human genome.

ïChanges in trainees: an overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, people of color, and foreign trainees. 

  • From amateur science to professionalism.                                                             The first few centuries of science in the USA were done by amateur scientists, funded by family money or wealthy sponsors, occasionally by the government. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was a significant move for the definition and professionalism of science: The National Academy was founded in the mid 1863’s, furthering the interest in science. Around turn of the 20th century, professionalism was emphasized and the Bureau of Standards was founded to fit into the ongoing pattern of world commerce.

    Amateur science- performed by those without advanced science degrees- is still done in the U.S., but it wasn’t respected until the tech revolution, which revered the outsider.

– Land-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

Science and other academic endeavors were generally available only to the wealthy, who could attend excellent private universities in the country, or abroad. Government commitment to higher education was boosted through the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln, this act granted federal land to states on the basis of the size of the states’ congressional delegation. These lands were then to be sold to provide an endowment for the establishment of at least one college or university.

…the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

The Morrill Act of 1862. Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. 2008. Education Encyclopedia,State


By 1873, there were twenty four land grant institutions, which together enrolled 2,600 students, about 13% of the total US collegiate population. Agriculture was the most popular course in these early days. Engineering overtook agriculture as the most popular course of study through the 20th century. Practical and useful and applied education, available to all, funded by the federal government, became an assumption. 11 of the twenty top institutions in total research-and-development spending for fiscal year 1998 were land grant universities. [Land-grant Colleges and Universities 2008].

Peer review grows in importance. 

Peer review, the process through which scientists evaluate each others grant applications and manuscript submissions, is one of the cornerstones of research and science in the USA, and one that has enabled scientists to feel that the profession is and should be self regulating. Its origins are in England’s Royal Society, where members sometimes asked scientists to read submitted papers submitted to its Philosophical Transactions, and this ad hoc approach took place in American scientific journals as well. With the formation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, ad hoc committees were formed to oversee the dispensation of funds received as private gifts.

The US Federal government, through the National Research Council, began supporting scientists after WWI, and committees oversaw the distribution of funds. By the end of World War II, peer review was routine.

      “Thus, by the post-World War II science boom, peer review had become accepted practice. “It came into full force after the war with the establishments of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health,” says Jonathan R. Cole, provost of Columbia and co-author of a number of works on the peer review system, including a 1981 National Academy of Sciences study on its ethical aspects. “That is where the principle of merit-based review was very clearly established and has been followed ever since.” Cole argues that, whatever its flaws, peer review has worked. “It’s been an essential part of the American science scene and one of the reasons why American science has done so well.”” Tom Abate. 1995. What’s the Verdict on Peer Review?

World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

Before WWII, science was funded by donors or industry. The Manhattan Project and the race for the atomic bomb was the first big government expenditure on research. Vannevar Bush, advisor to  President Roosevelt and leader of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, was responsible for the expectation of a government and science collaboration funded by the government after WWII. In 1950, the National Science Foundation was funded to promote science, advance health and prosperity, and secure the national defense.

The military continues to be very much involved with basic science, a collaboration that was protested in the 60’s and 70’s, but is now accepted passively….

“…in the first decade or two after 1945, the United States attempted to use its scientific and technological leadership, in conjunction with its economic, military, and industrial strength, to shape the research agendas, the institutions, and the allegiances of scientists in Western Europe in line with U.S. scientific, political, and ideological interests in the region.” P 3 American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. John krige. MIT Press, Cambridge.

The unraveling of the properties of DNA and regulation of recombinant DNA work.

Watson’s and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA was published in 1953, and started a revolution in biology and chemistry. The wild and heady times of the early work with DNA have perhaps more than anything else imprinted themselves on the research culture. Both in the lab and in interacting with the greater world, was a sense of discovery and also of activism, of that science could do well for the world.

“Chemistry was then a field with a strong conservative streak. Not only was there a fairly rigid view of what path one should take to be a chemist, but the social and political environment in chemistry departments was confining. The field seemed to have retained much of its authoritarian German roots. Biochemistry was more welcoming to me, although the origins of many of its practitioners in the field of chemistry made it only a slight improvement. It was during my graduate career that the emergence of the new field of molecular biology began to dramatically revolutionize sensibilities and the climate in the life sciences.

    “Molecular biology was anointed as a scientific discipline in the late 1950’s, formed from a gathering of scientists in the disparate fields of genetics, biochemistry, and biophysics. Its roots go back to the entry of a number of young physicists into biology in the 1940’s. These pioneers, convinced that the fundamental problems in physics had been solved, sought new scientific principles in the study of living organisms. “ [Beckwith 2002], p 16.

The first gene was spliced in 1971 and among themselves, scientists debated the implications of gene engineering. Soon the discussion moved to the public, however, and Congress heard testimony from scientists, for and against, the new technology. The Cambridge/Boston area was the center of the debate about recombinant DNA, and remains a center for molecular biology research.  The recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) was established by NIH in 1974 and still advises the NIH on issues involving basic and clinical research with recombinant DNA.

“To the consternation of the scientists and the confusion of policy-makers, recombinant DNA became a testing ground for emerging national concepts in public participation. In the early stages of the DNA debate (1973-975), policy-making was largely initiated and controlled by scientists and administrators involved in biological research, that is, by researchers with little experience or expertise in public participation. Their role was a reactive one, a succession of stopgaps, and finally a painful accommodation to increasingly “foreign” pieces of politics inserted in their normally private decision-making machinery.” [Goodell 1979], p 36.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, bringing business to academia, and the beginning of biotech.

The Biotech industry and the incursion of business interests into the academic laboratory were jump-started by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Named for its sponsors, Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole, the Bayh-Dole Act adjusted the U.S. patent and trademark law and transferred the title of all discoveries made with the help of federal research grants to the universities and small businesses (later, also to non-profits and large businesses) where they were made.

Now universities and other organizations could market inventions made there, and individual researchers could personally profit, and so both the organization and the researcher were encouraged to patent their discoveries. A wave of technology transfer offices were established in universities, and Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

In 1976, Genentech, the first biotech company, was founded by venture capitalist Robert Swanson and biochemist Dr. Herb Boyer. Genentech scientists produced the first human protein, somatostatin, in a microorganism in 1977, cloned human insulin in 1978, human growth hormone in 1979, and the company went public in 1980. The use of cells to make proteins and hormones which distinguished biotech companies from pharmaceutical companies could be done in small academic labs by individual scientists, and many patented their findings and formed companies.

The possibility of making money certainly brought a new wave of enthusiasm to the world of academic scientists, and biotech scientists gradually gained respectability. In the 80’s, scientists might refuse to attend a seminar given by an industrial or biotech scientist, but as patents and millionaire scientists and biotech products became more familiar, biotech gained respectability with scientists….that is, with some scientists.  Acceptance of the intrusion of patents and lawyers into basic research has been more difficult among the generations of pre-biotech scientists who don’t believe personal profit is valid motivation for a scientist.

“I’m troubled that many researchers are becoming less productive because they divert their skills away from the goals of producing quality science and technology. Too many people in the scientific community are now driven by motives aside from the desire to make practical or basic discoveries. The accoutrements of success-large laboratories, significant funding, travel to many meetings at home and abroad- have overshadowed the joy of discovery. And too many scientists feel tempted to cut corners due to competitive pressures and the rapid pace of contemporary science. Science advances most productively when we focus on scientific merit rather than on the potential for attracting fame or increased funding.”  Yalow 1993 p 3

The opening of entrepreneurship to the academic world brought another kind of excitement, that of individual achievement and profit. It brought other source of income to universities, and opened job choices for researchers. It also raised conflict of interest issues to both individual researchers and to institutions, and started the commercialization and privitization of universities.

      The collaboration between molecular biologists and industry and government also set molecular biology apart from other biological sciences. In the reductionist times of the molecular biology revolution, ecology, population genetics, community ecology, were slighted in funding, and “important science” was linked to profit.

Sequencing of the human genome and consideration of ethical issues.

The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 had a huge influence on how science is viewed, and ushered in a shift to systems thinking, the integration of the parts, the ecology of components. Reductivism became less prestigious. Technology was directed towards systems, although one could also argue that development of the technology influenced the philosophy.

This change in looking at systems rather than at isolated components is, interestingly, reflected in changes in the sociology of how science is done.  Science has become more collaborative, more interdisciplinary, almost as if communication styles have paralleled the philosophy of experimentation.

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 by the NIH and the DOE, after several meetings and talks through the 80’s. Reportedly, the DOE interest in the project developed from its study of genetic damage to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Human Genome Project was extremely controversial among scientists, some of whom worried about the ethical implications of the research, and others who feared that other science would no longer be well funded as so many resources were put into the genome project. As well, the tradition of the independent investigator in a small lab was challenged, as the importance of collaborative science to the genome project became manifest, and industry and academic labs teamed up on different aspects of the project.

 In 1998, Ventor started Celera with the intention of competing with NIH to sequence the human genome. The two groups announced the completion of their sequencing in separate journals (Ventor in Science, NIH in Nature) in 2001.

The collaborations of the Human Genome Project, across multiple labs and with academia and industry, became a model to continue to follow: business provided the big machines, academia the ideas. Numerous institutes and centers based on this model were begun.

 – Changes in trainees and greater commitment to diversity : An overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, minorities, and foreign trainees. 

With money pouring into academic institutions, more trainees were accepted. The increase in the number of biomedical and other Ph.D.s is putting a severe strain on the resources of NIH and of other funding agencies and institutions, and fewer people get academic jobs.

There has been not only been an overall increase in the number of students entering graduate school in the biological sciences, but also in the make up of the trainees. There are now more women, minorities, and foreign trainees.

    This diversity of scientists has helped to bring new approaches and questions to science and perhaps new and hopefully better ways of collaboration and communication. The importance of mentoring has become clear. But mentoring such a large and varied group of scientists has been a challenge, and there are huge variations in the quality and quantity of training received.

The feminization of the research environment is said to be responsible for many of the rules that help all with work-life integration. Parental leave, the expectation of a 9-5 job, job-sharing, are all effects of women’s (mainly) desire to work and to have a family. Boundaries have softened- the work and home environments are not as tightly compartmentalized. New trainees tend to appreciate this more than many older scientists, who see a less-than-total dedication to research.

There are many interpretations of history, and the above story was told with an emphasis on the cultural changes causing and being affected by research in cell and molecular biology. It could be told with entirely different events:

Through the story of the development of a technology.

Through the personal stories of individuals.

Through the high points of a specific field.

Through medical discoveries.

History is written by the victor, and the history of even modern science is the same, with the victor claiming objectivity. But there are many different interpretations of science that are shunted aside in business-as-usual science. These interpretations challenge the mainstream idea of the role scientists should play in society.

“Awareness of our subjectivity and context must be part of doing science because there is no way we can eliminate them. We come to the objects we study with our particular personal and social backgrounds and with inevitable interests. Once we acknowledge those, we can try to understand the world, so to speak, from inside instead of pretending to be objective outsiders looking in.”   “Science, Facts, and Feminism”, p 127, pp 119-131. Ruth Hubbard, in Feminism & Science.

The mainstream culture of science assumes  and partially defines itself as having an objective view of the world, and seems to many to be not amenable to other interpretations. But there are feminist interpretations as well that suggest the projects selected, the way problems are chosen, and the ways people communicate could be different. There are Marxist interpretations of science that most Americans would immediately dismiss not only because they are non-mainstream, but also because of the shadow of decades of anti-communist teachings in schools.

Still, there have been times when Marxist analyses of science have been tolerated. For example, with the strong Marxist political movements active in the 1930’s and 40’s in the USA, Britain, and France, there was a flurry of Marxist critiques of the history, philosophy, and politics of science, which faded with the collapse of the political movement in the 50’s. Again, Marxist criticism of science arose again in the 60’s and 70’s, and collapsed in the 80’s.  Gary Werskey, ‘The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements

The dark side of science, and how it may influence your communications.

      It is likely that most scientists believe they are working for the good of mankind. It is also likely that most non-scientists believe in the good of science- but many do not. Both scientists and non-scientists might mention the Tuskegee syphilis study in the USA as an example of the misuse of science, but there are many other stories that have alienated groups of people to science. For example:

-The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell.

-The deliberate infection of approximately 700 Guatamalans with syphilis by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1940’s.

Not all non-scientists believe science is inherently good, or even valueless, but is the force that creates wars, that helps some and not others. Not all workplaces are ethically run, not all personnel are ethical.

Establish your own history. In your own lab, group, or department, a shared sense of history will clarify and enrich the culture.

– Make a library to define culture of science. For yourself, your lab, your department, your colleagues, keep and circulate journals and books that will give thought and perspective to science as you practice it.

– 1 x month non-technical journal clubs.

– 1 x month journal clubs with the original papers that defined the field.

– Teach a mini-course in culture and history. Or politics.

In my untenured days, I did one supremely foolish thing. I developed and taught a “science for poets” course. (I haven’t the space here to explain why it was foolish.) The class read much of the original literature and commentary on The Double Helix–including original papers, meeting reports, Watson’s funny and irreverent book, Anne Sayer’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, and Crick’s later work, What Mad Pursuit. We did background reading on Mendelian genetics and examined what was known about DNA in 1954 to get a feel for what Watson and Crick had to work with. We read the later memoirs of some other central figures in the story. We watched the film The Race for the Double Helix, in which Jeff Goldblum cleverly plays Jim Watson. I even tried to have Anne Sayer speak to the class, but, regrettably, her health forbade it.     Gerald Harbison,  Guest comment: Genes, Girls, and Gender Politics. Science Insights 6:6.  National Association of Scholars.


A traditional view via slideshare of the history of science 

The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (See Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, Baltimore.

Harriet Washington. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

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2 Responses to The history of science is written by the “victors.” So find your own narrative.

  1. Allison Lee March 22, 2016 at 6:09 pm #

    Great points! This is why I enjoy reading EO Wilson’s Naturalist auto-biography. He tells the story of how certain departments and terms came to be, such as ‘sociobiology’, the coming of molecular biology and the tensions between leading scientists. He also encourages other young modern day scientists (in his book Letters to a Young Scientist) to record their experiences that tell these stories! I also enjoyed reading the more lay-person’s book “A Little History of Science”. Breaks certain fields down and tells about how they came to be through cultural changes as well!

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