Academies of Science

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Elite national scientific organizations have been part of the social structure of modern science since its origins. By the twentieth century, academies of science had become a nearly ubiquitous feature of modern states. Although these bodies possess some common features, their organizational and functional differences provide an index of the various possible relationships among science, the state, and political ideologies in the modern era.


Two enduring models were the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, organized in 1660 and chartered in 1662, and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, founded in 1666. These academies were forums for the examination and confirmation of results, increasingly through the scrutiny of written reports—the origins of what we now call peer review. They disseminated these reports and communications from corresponding members, for example, through the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, one of the earliest scientific journals.

The Royal Society had little connection with the state besides its name. Its fellows (FRS) received no governmental financial support. The society therefore depended on subscriptions and private donations, which meant that often amateurs were elected for reasons of patronage or prestige rather than scientific achievement. Although occasionally called upon to provide advice to the government on matters of scientific and technical import, the Royal Society was independent of state control.

By contrast, the Parisian academy was a designedly elitist state agency. Members—limited to six in each of (initially) five sections—received a modest annual stipend. The academy regularly advised the government on scientific and technological problems and served as a de facto patent court. The French academy developed a system of prizes for work in specified subjects—a way of subsidizing successful research but also of influencing its direction. Moreover, funds were sometimes provided for projects beyond the scope of individuals. Through the academy, the state promoted scientific talent but also enrolled that talent to achieve policy goals.

During the eighteenth century many European (and some new American) states established academies of science. (James E. McClellan lists more than sixty official academies in existence as of 1793; many of these were regional academies in France or academies based in small German and Italian states.) Increasing specialization of the sciences in the nineteenth century complicated the organizational landscape. Research became more exclusively the domain of growing numbers of credentialed professionals. Likewise, the old categories of natural philosophy and natural history were differentiated into disciplines such as physics, geology, chemistry, and biology. This resulted in the creation of associations open to all working scientists (e.g., the British Association for the Advancement of Science) as well as professional societies for specific disciplines. Moreover, universities increasingly took on research functions. These changes challenged the traditional function of the academies; conversely, they took on new tasks of national representation in international scientific unions and conventions, such as those on measurements.


In Great Britain nineteenth-century reform movements led to more rigorous, merit-based standards for Royal Society membership, and by the early twentieth century the title FRS regained its status as a crowning achievement of a scientific career. The Royal Society's Transactions and Proceedings—which eventually was split into several disciplinary series—remained premier scientific periodicals. The society also began to serve as a conduit for government research funds—for example, through several senior research professorships and a series of grants for students—and as a pool of expert advisors, particularly during the world wars. However, proposals to link it more closely to the state gained little traction.

In the French Academy of Sciences—the "Royal" appellation flickered in and out with various constitutional changes—the number of disciplinary sections increased to eleven during the nineteenth century, and its Comptes Rendus (published beginning in 1835) became the supreme general-subject French scientific journal. The scope of the prize system increased; in 1975 prizes in sixty-four different categories, worth a total of just over one million francs (mostly from donated endowments), were awarded. But by the mid-twentieth century the academy, with its membership restricted to a small pinnacle of the French scientific community, was widely perceived to be somewhat inflexible. Its function as an active promoter of research was largely supplanted by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), founded as a consolidation of several previous government offices in 1939 to provide funds for a network of laboratories and direct research grants. Reforms in 1975 aimed at a younger overall membership and more active sponsorship of research, but little changed, and another round of reforms approved in 2003 aimed at similar ends.

The prime twentieth-century example of an academy as the agent of state policy was to be found in the Soviet Union. The Russian Academy of Sciences had been established in 1725—initially largely populated by foreign recruits—as part of Peter the Great's modernization efforts. After the Revolution of 1917 some Bolsheviks saw it as an indelibly bourgeois institution, but it was decided to use the expertise of a renamed Academy of Sciences of the USSR in furtherance of modernization and industrialization—ironically, continuing the tsarist heritage but taken to new lengths. The academy came to operate dozens of state-funded institutes—by 1939 fifty-eight laboratories and twenty museums—employing thousands of researchers. It is hardly surprising that the academy was buffeted by political tumult. By the late 1920s the initial tolerance of "bourgeois experts" met counterdemands that the academy become a more authentically "socialist" institution; some members were dismissed and many new members more inclined toward socialism were appointed. The academy also experienced the Great Purges of 1936–1939, though its institutional structures remained largely intact. Starting in the late 1930s as well, an adverse consequence of centralized state control was revealed in the pervasive anti-Mendelian influence exerted by Trofim Lysenko after he carried out a kind of coup d'état in the field of genetics. Soviet Academy institutes produced world-class research in many fields, particularly in mathematics, astronomy, and physics; however, junior scientists, especially, often chafed at the bureaucratic planning of science as though it were a kind of industrial production. The Soviet model was copied throughout the Eastern bloc after 1945, with previous elite national academies being transformed into planning bureaus for wide-ranging state laboratory networks.

Ideological conflicts and political divisions were also prominent in the history of scientific academies in Germany. The Saxon (founded 1846) and Bavarian (1759) academies, as well as those in Göttingen (1751) and—until World War I—Vienna (1847) formed a "cartel" in 1893 but remained mutually independent. The Prussian Academy (founded 1700) and the new academy in Heidelberg (1909) joined later. The theoretically all-German Leopoldina Society of natural researchers, earlier peripatetic but based in Halle from 1878 on, was somewhat overshadowed by the state-based academies, particularly Prussia's. The German academies, like their British and French counterparts, served as honorific societies and published scholarly proceedings; unlike them, they also contained prominent sections for humanistic disciplines. Particularly in the humanities, several German academies were responsible for large-scale research endeavors, such as systematic editions of medieval historical documents and philological reference works. In the natural sciences, however, their sponsorship of research was indirect. State sponsorship of science was channeled through university laboratories, through grants provided by the Emergency Council for German Science (founded 1919, later renamed the German Research Society), and through the elite non-university research institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (founded 1911, later renamed the Max Planck Society), which had mixed governmental and private support.

The German academies faced co-optation under the Nazi state; after some temporizing, by the late 1930s they had mostly dismissed their "non-Aryan" members and instituted authoritarian internal leadership. These changes were revised after 1945, albeit differently in West and East. The West German academies largely reverted to previous patterns, with essentially only formal state affiliation. New academies in Mainz (1949) and Düsseldorf (1970) joined the Union of Academies (as the cartel had been renamed). In East Germany the Prussian Academy was renamed the Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic and operated a network of laboratories on the Soviet model. After reunification this body was restructured yet again as the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. The Leopoldina tried—with considerable success—to maintain its status as an all-German society in the face of countervailing pressure from the GDR government.

Other European academies usually operated somewhere between the presence or absence of state control and between direct management of research or a predominantly honorific and editorial function. The Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden, for example, managed several research institutes, but it also lost several functions during the course of the twentieth century: operation of the Natural History Museum (till 1965), environmental management of national parks (till 1967), and publication of the Swedish almanac (till 1972). The Swedish Academy gained a unique world prominence, however, through its custodianship of the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, as well as (later) the Nobel memorial prize in Economics and the Crafoord Prize in Mathematics. Arguably its very location on the relative periphery of the academic world enabled it to take on this role as an international arbiter of scientific prestige.

See alsoPurges; Science.


Crosland, Maurice. Science under Control: The French Academy of Sciences 1795–1914. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Frängsmyr, Tore, ed. Science in Sweden: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1739–1989. Canton, Mass., 1989.

McClellan, James E., 3rd. Science Reorganized: Scientific Societies in the Eighteenth Century. New York, 1985.

Paul, Harry W. From Knowledge to Power: The Rise of the Science Empire in France, 1860–1939. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Stimson, Dorothy. Scientists and Amateurs: A History of the Royal Society. New York, 1948.

Vucinich, Alexander. Empire of Knowledge: The Academy of Sciences of the USSR (1917–1970). Berkeley, Calif., 1984.

Richard H. Beyler

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Academies of Science

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Academies of Science