Key Scientific Research Institutions Are Founded

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Key Scientific Research Institutions Are Founded


As late as the nineteenth century, many scientists pursued their field of work as a side occupation to a more financially reliable profession. During this time universities were the main centers of scientific research, with scientific "societies" fueling the exchange of knowledge across academic and geographic borders. By the late 1800s, however, as scientific knowledge grew at an incredible pace, scientists were turning more to governments and private philanthropists to fund their progress and support their dedication to a specialized field of study. Science and scientists entered the twentieth century divided into specialties, influenced by fast-paced innovation, and driven by an intense focus on research. In many cases, the kind of institution—private industrial, militaristic, or medical—that supported a field of research dictated or restricted the path of that specialty. Today's scientific research community grew from the successes and mistakes made in the first half of the twentieth century, and continues to change as research modifies science as we know it.


In the early 1800s, the full-time scientist of the day typically worked in a university or a medical hospital. Research, or what many call "pure science," was difficult to support without an applicable purpose. And, in turn, many applied sciences were accidental: inventions such as the sewing machine, the steam engine, and agricultural machinery were produced by non-scientists who were simply improving upon existing technology.

Many governments were investing more in the "scientific" expeditions of explorers and their pursuit to discover, map, and reveal the unknowns of mysterious lands than the pursuit of laboratory science. Some of these missions involved trained scientists, but most did not. When the United States funded an expedition to explore the western U.S., for example, they hired Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), an Army officer with no formal scientific training. He was given a crash course in natural sciences before he left.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a sharp division in science, with the "philosophical" scientists on one side, who were frequently part of scientific societies, exchanging high-minded theories and arguments, and "professional" scientists on the other, who made improvements in their lives or worked for the government on some aspect of applicable science. It wasn't until the German university system emerged that the idea of combining the two in a research forum, free of government expectation but encouraged through the structure of academia, became acceptable. German universities began building immense research structures, focusing as much on the grandeur of the physical surroundings as the prestige of its scientists. Germany also expanded into state-sponsored pure research institutes, most notably the Pasteur Institute, founded in 1888, and the Koch Institute, founded in 1891.

State-sponsored and privately funded institutes modeled after the German research university sprung up across Europe and the U.S. Johns Hopkins University became the first research-focused university in America, and Cold Spring Harbor, one of the few research institutes in the United States, funded by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, was built in 1890. Its proximity to marine life and salt and freshwater made it the ideal setting to study one of the more popular subjects of "pure science" at the time: Darwin's principles of natural selection.

Soon the wealthiest philanthropists in America fixed on the burgeoning interest in research at the turn of the century, with John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) and Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) providing generous endowments to research. By the end of the nineteenth century, science became the focus of several channels of funding, particularly industry and government.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, financial support for scientific research seemed abundant, particularly in the industry-booming United States. By 1902, the Rockefeller Board had contributed more than $1 million for scientific research, forming what became (and still is) the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. At the same time, Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Institute of Washington, contributing $10 million by 1911. American industry saw that it could benefit from funding its own bank of scientific experts, with General Electric and American Telephone and Telegraph (today's AT&T) bankrolling industrial research centers.

In Europe, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut, founded in 1911, was becoming world-renowned for its focus on "pure science," something the American scientists could not claim. In the United States, it was estimated that less than 4,000 scientists were practicing pure research. America was still focused on science for utility, with the private endowments of Rockefeller and Carnegie mainly going to medical research, and government funding directed toward technical work. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institut, on the other hand, was formed on the stated purpose of "promoting the sciences."

But the influence of government on scientific research had, and still has, its disadvantages, even within the "pure" sciences. The most extreme example of this is in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut, where the turn toward studying psychiatry became a grotesque example of the inhumanity of the Nazi regime. In 1924, the Institut began to concentrate on brain research and mental illness, focusing on heredity and genetics. By the onset of WWII, the bank of prisoners that Germany held became research subjects. Children, in particular, were routinely euthanised, their brains dissected and studied.

Likewise, although not as deliberately sinister, Cold Spring Harbor in the United States took a dark turn, as well. Under the guidance of Charles Davenport (1866-1944), what started as a study of "experimental evolution" became a center for studying human genetics. Davenport set out to prove that genetics explained racial stereotypes, and he promoted a need for sterilization campaigns to keep "bad" genes out of the population. It was the middle of a worldwide scientific focus on eugenics, or the effort to improve the human species through controlling hereditary characteristics. The work of these sensational projects momentarily overshadowed some of the groundbreaking genetics work at the time. At Cold Spring Harbor, for example, scientists funded by the Carnegie Institute developed the first hybrid corn, isolated the "pregnancy hormone" prolactin, and pioneered work on the genetic basis for certain cancers.

In Russia, where Communism had taken total control of scientific research, a focus toward efficiency and industrial technology all but eliminated the pure sciences. Similarly, the war and a push toward improving technology are what drove most government-funded institutions around the world. At the end of World War II, Russia and the U.S. began working on developing sophisticated atomic weapons. This resulted in government-sponsored research focused solely on militaristic gains, with the formation in the U.S. of the Atomic Energy Commission, which led to the establishment of laboratories dedicated to this purpose, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Many of the once-famous institutions of Europe—especially those of Germany—were desiccated during the war, but the American scientific community was strengthened by the forced application of science and technology. What followed were the moral and ethical complications of scientists developing work for killing. J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), seen as a sort of hero following his leadership at Los Alamos during the war, argued with legislators about scientific creative freedom, and the dangers of working solely for the military needs of the government. This was difficult for politicians to accept, accustomed to accounting for every dollar of government money spent, but in due time, Oppenheimer's request would be recognized.

The role of government in fundamental research beyond its pet projects—space, military technology, and atomic energy—has grown considerably since WWII. The National Science Foundation, formed in 1950, is one of the great achievements of the U.S. government that represents this change of focus. The major institutes formed, and reformed, during the early twentieth century continue to play a major role in scientific research, and remain a reminder of the importance of ethical considerations in research. The Rockefeller Foundation, as well as the Carnegie Institute, remain two of the most important foundations in the world, donating enormous funds and support into scientific work worldwide. While scientists still struggle to conduct "pure" research in a world where applicable science can promise enormous financial reward, the structure established after the turn of the century guarantees that fundamental scientific research will carry on.


Further Reading


Dupree, Hunter S. Science in the Federal Government. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Greenburg, Daniel S. The Politics of Pure Science. New York: The New American Library, 1967.

Miller, Howard S. Dollars for Research. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970.

Internet Sites

The Carnegie Institute.

Cold Spring Harbor.

The Rockefeller Foundation.

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Key Scientific Research Institutions Are Founded

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