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Allison Commission


ALLISON COMMISSION, a joint, bipartisan congressional committee that was among the first to explore the question of whether federal intervention politicizes scientific research. Chaired by Senator William B. Allison of Iowa, the commission investigated the activities of four federal scientific agencies from 1884 to 1886. In addition to examining a jurisdictional dispute between the Navy Hydrographic Office and the Coast and Geodetic Survey over the charting of offshore waters, the commission examined the charge that the Geological Survey, the Coast Survey, and the Weather Service, which was then part of the Army Signal Corps, were doing research for abstract, not strictly practical, purposes.

In testimony before the committee, the scientists employed by the government maintained that their work was wholly practical. Several scientists contended that the legitimacy of research could not be judged by laymen, and they called for a reorganization of federal science to keep its administration out of the hands of mere political functionaries.

Congressman Hilary A. Herbert, an Alabama Democrat on the commission, insisted on the principle of maintaining direct democratic control over the scientific agencies. A devotee of limited government, he proposed sharp reductions in the activities of the two surveys, the award of the Coast Survey's offshore work to the Hydro-graphic Office, and the transfer of the Weather Service from the Army Signal Corps to a civilian department. Despite Herbert's efforts to scale down the scope and extent of federal science projects, however, the majority of the commission favored retaining the status quo in federal research, and Congress upheld the majority report. The government's relationship to scientific research has remained controversial ever since.


Bruce, Robert V. The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Guston, David H., and Kenneth Keniston, eds. The Fragile Contract: University Science and the Federal Government. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Daniel J.Kevles/a. g.

See alsoGeophysical Explorations ; Marine Sanctuaries ; National Academy of Sciences ; Signal Corps, U.S. Army .

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