Science Philosophy and Practice: Scientific Academies, Institutes, Museums, and Societies

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Science Philosophy and Practice: Scientific Academies, Institutes, Museums, and Societies


Scientific academies, societies, or institutes are groups of intellectuals, usually researchers, who are interested in the same broad topics and share their studies and ideas with one another for the advancement of scientific knowledge. In the United States, the National Academy of Sciences conducts research and advises the different government departments to aid in decision-making. Many other countries follow the same approach with their own academies of science.

A few of the oldest national academies sprang from private scientific academies that worked for the advancement of a discipline or field, or for the advancement of science in general. Some of these private academies are very old, dating from the Renaissance or Enlightenment. Academies such as these contributed to many basic discoveries by encouraging both cooperation and competition between great minds. Today, public and private scientific academies continue this tradition by holding meetings, publishing journals, and generally encouraging the advancement of scientific thought and research.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The term “academy” was first associated with learning and scholarship through the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.427–c.347 BC). Initially, the word was simply the name of his neighborhood, but it soon became associated with the school of philosophy that he oversaw in his home. In the ancient world, philosophy and science were not considered the separate disciplines they are today. At the time, philosophers wanted to explain the world as they saw it: The character of man, the nature of the gods, the composition of the universe, mathematics, geometry, ethics, rhetoric, and many other disciplines fell within the scope of their interest. Other philosophers, both before and after Plato, established schools in this model. Aristotle's philosophical school, the Lyceum, inspired the names of many academic institutions, particularly in Europe and Russia. Socrates (c.470–399 BC) is equally famous for shunning the idea of schools altogether and making teaching and philosophy the core of his interactions with other people.

Many philosophical academies continued in one form or another until the Roman Empire began to collapse in the fifth century AD. After the fall of Rome, much ancient learning was lost. During the Middle Ages, learning refocused around the Christian Church, particularly in monasteries. The Renaissance period, however, saw the rebirth of systematic scientific inquiry and the complete redefinition of artistic style. Science

and art became intertwined with the rise of great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). As much a scientist as he was an artist, da Vinci's wide-ranging interests mirrored the development of the age as a whole. He explored his interests in anatomy, engineering, and the natural world through observations recorded in his notebooks, but did not conduct many experiments to test theories.

It was during the later part of the Renaissance that the earliest “modern” scientific academies were founded. Academia Secretorum Naturæ, or the Academy of Nature's Mysteries, was founded by Giambattista della Porta (c.1535–1615) in Naples before 1580. Della Porta was interested in optics, mathematics, hydraulics, pharmacology, and meteorology, but also explored alchemy, astrology, and the occult. This led to the dissolution of his academy by Papal decree. He then joined the Accademia dei Lincei, or Academy of Lynxes (so named because the lynx is sharp-sighted), founded in Rome by Federico Cesi (1585–1630) in 1603. Although Cesi was a botanist, he invited scientists of all disciplines to join his group. Most prominent among the Lincei was Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), the astronomer, physicist, and mathematician who confirmed Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the solar system.

Upon Cesi's death, his academy disbanded. During the following centuries it was revived several times; its current incarnation is designated as the national scientific academy of Italy. Other academies followed, notably in France, Germany, Russia, Ireland, England, and many other countries in Europe. Most were founded privately and eventually grew to receive the patronage of kings or universities.

Modern Cultural Connections

Today, scientific academies and institutes take many different forms. The National Academies of the United States are designed to advise the government on scientific, medical, or engineering matters. The National Research Council conducts research with the purpose of answering questions relevant to public policy. Members are elected to the National Academy of Science in recognition of their excellence in research. The governing board is selected from members of the academy.

Some private academies still exist, though in a much more organized form than in the past. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are as much involved with promoting science as they are with conducting research. Individual scientists still make up the membership of such organizations. They attend conferences, publish in the academies's journals, and serve on committees.

Scientific academies are often interested in promoting scientific research and education, advising governments and universities on scientific policy, and encouraging the responsible use of science to solve problems. The term “scientific institute” often refers to an organization engaged in active research on a particular topic or group of topics. Sometimes education in this field is also an active part of an institute's mission.

Scientific museums may or may not be affiliated with scientific academies, institutes, or universities. For example, the Museum of Science in Boston was founded by a group of men who wanted to share their mutual interest in science, much like the earliest scientific academies. Many popular scientific museums focus on technology and its development over time. Sometimes, scientific museums focus on zoology, botany, paleontology, geology, and other sciences of the natural world. These museums are often known as natural history museums.

Modern scientific academies, institutes, and societies have developed from small, private groups exploring their interests to the vast institutions we know today. Some of the most fundamental discoveries in science were made possible because of the support of the earliest academies. Today, these organizations continue to encourage new discoveries, advocate the importance of science, and educate the public on scientific topics.

See Also Science Philosophy and Practice: Professionalization; Science Philosophy and Practice: Research Funding and the Grant System; Science Philosophy and Practice: Science Communications and Peer Review.



Drenth, P.J.D. “Scientific Academies in International Conflict Resolution.” Technology in Society 23, no. 3 (2001): 451–460.

Web Sites

National Academy of Sciences. “About the NAS.” (accessed January 12, 2008).

Rice University. Galileo Project. “Giambattista della Porta.” 1995. (accessed January 12, 2008).

University of St. Andrews. School of Mathematics and Statistics. “The Accademia Dei Lincei.” August 2004. <̃history/Societies/Lincei.html> (accessed January 12, 2008).

Melanie Barton Zoltán

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Science Philosophy and Practice: Scientific Academies, Institutes, Museums, and Societies

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Science Philosophy and Practice: Scientific Academies, Institutes, Museums, and Societies