Three more days of office routine? Or… help make history?

The choice is yours.

Working in the DC area… on Earth observations, sciences, and services, or at the intersection between Earth sciences and policy? Short notice, but it’s not too late for you to lift your next three working days out of the ordinary, by participating in this year’s AMS Washington Forum, which runs Tuesday—Thursday April 1-3. All you have to do is tweak your morning commute, and set as your destination the auditorium of the AAAS building at 1200 New York Avenue, NW. Picture yourself hearing in person from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Department of Commerce Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, other Federal Agency Leads, and Congressional and Executive Staffers. Weigh in on a range of topics, spanning:

Over the three days, you can make a difference on scientific advance and application of that science for societal benefit in any or all of these areas. By actively engaging in the discussions, you’ll influence the thinking of others. By actively listening in turn, you’ll allow them to enrich your perspective on your own work and its relevance to the human condition. You’ll leave a better-informed, more effective player, reinvigorated. Your increased effectiveness upon your return to your desk will quickly recover the opportunity cost of being away for those three days.

Lest you think this overstatement, reflect for a moment on the parallel between these annual AMS Washington sessions and those first formative meetings of the AAAS itself, held back during the 1850’s. Imagine a world with no AAAS[1]. As you read this material, look for similarities and the differences between the challenges facing scientists of that era and those confronting us today:

…Meanwhile, the profession as a whole was reaching a level of maturity that allowed it to organize itself. As early as 1840, ten geologists, mostly connected with the state surveys, met in Philadelphia to form the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists. In 1848, this organization, with a widened and open membership, adopted a new constitution based on that of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On the drafting committee were the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers, Benjamin Peirce, and Louis Agassiz. This American Association for the Advancement of Science immediately became the main meeting place of the scientists of the United States. In 1848, it had 461 members, and by 1854, the number had risen to 1004.

Although the new organization had no direct ties to the government, it was a means by which the scientists could express their views on public policy. As early as 1849, the Association induced the State Department to make representations in behalf of a Professor Schumacher, whose work was impeded by unsettled conditions in Schleswig-Holstein. By 1851, of nineteen special committees, eight aimed directly at the federal government. The subjects included Johnson’s experiments on coal, Maury’s wind and current charts, the prime meridian, the Coast Survey, uniform standards of weights and measures, the use of public lands to aid Missouri in a geological survey, scientific exploration, and the corps of observers on the Mexican Boundary Survey. Scientists in the government service seemed to dominate the organization. Henry appeared on five committees, Baird on three, C. H. Davis on two, and Bache on six. Of the officers in 1851, Bache was president, Baird corresponding secretary, Henry and Wilkes members of the standing committee. Even the most prominent college scientist, Benjamin Peirce of Harvard, was a consultant on the Coast Survey and the Nautical Almanac.

The significance of the connection of the government to the new AAAS was not lost upon Bache, the superintendent of the largest and strongest segment of the federal scientific establishment. When he delivered his address as retiring president at the Albany meeting in 1851, he showed that he recognized the problem in its broadest dimensions. He saw that of the older societies only the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had “struck very deep roots,” and that neither was well endowed. He saw that American science had labored under the evils of “the prevalence of general lecturing on various branches, the cultivation of the literature of science rather than of science itself.” Pointing out that the Institute of France paid its members “a moderate support, that the country may have the benefit of their labors,” he insisted that researches such as those of the Franklin Institute on steam boilers fell short because “the laborers were without hire, though neither they nor their works were deemed unworthy of it.” Indeed, he reckoned as one of the largest “obstacles to the progress of science with us” the want of “direct support for its cultivators as such.” He saw too that the Smithsonian, “had it fivefold its present endowment . . . would not be able to meet the actual demands upon its funds for purposes in its ‘active operations.’ ” He saw that the organization of a scientific association had to wait on the development of professional standards, with the geologists leading the way because the state surveys gave the basis for testing competence by “positive work.” He saw that the AAAS, now that it had come into existence, had its role to play in advising the government, which was “called upon often to decide questions which belong rather to scientific than to political tribunals. A timely recommendation by a scientific congress would frequently be a relief from serious embarrassment.” However, both lack of money and of “that working spirit . . . which alone could bring experi- ments to a working conclusion” severely limited its committees.

Beyond this general pattern of the institutions of the country in 1851, Bache saw that the government could be a positive force in the advancement of science. For instance, he attributed the relatively advanced state of astronomy to its being “chiefly at first from its connection with navigation . . . the science which all governments, our own inclusive, have selected to encourage.” The same thing could happen to meteorology if it had the patronage. “The results of even the partial effort made in behalf of magnetism and meteorology” were hopeful, with materials “gathered, or gathering, from which impor- tant conclusions are daily derived, and which await the master mind to weave into [a] new Trincipia,’ a new ‘Mecanique/ or a new Theoria.’ ”

Bache then declared that “an institution of science, supplementary to existing ones, is much needed in our country, to guide public action in scientific matters.” …The heart of his proposal was appropriations from the “public treasury,” which “would be saved many times the support of such a council, by the sound advice which it would give in regard to the various projects which are con- stantly forced upon” the notice of government officials, “and in regard to which they are now compelled to decide without the knowledge which alone can ensure a wise conclusion.” The spheres of activity were already quite clear. “Without specification, it is easy to see that there are few applications of science which do not bear on the interests of commerce and navigation, naval or military concerns, the customs, the lighthouses, the public lands, post-offices and post-roads, either directly or remotely.” This new institution of science would step into an area otherwise “left to influence, or to imperfect knowledge.”

Two assumptions underlay all that Bache said that day in Albany. One was that only through the professionalization of scientists and the “minute subdivision” of their efforts in specialties could real research go forward. The other was that “science” meant to him essentially those branches which the surveying and exploring enterprises of the government had stimulated. Because of his own specialties he put great emphasis on mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Admitting a good deal of prominence to geology, he gave a little grudging recognition to descriptive natural history. But chemistry, laboratory biology, and the application of these fields to agriculture do not enter into his scheme at all. An institution that sprang from his ideas might be expected to be a group of professional specialists whose interests heavily favored the physical sciences.

Although Bache’s institution got no overt support in the 1850′$, the idea never died. It could live a kind of subterranean existence in high places because of the extraordinary importance of a small group of men. Scientific organization had reached a new state not only in the AAAS, but in small self-conscious gatherings of professionals who recognized their common goals and their differences from the older generation. The body of scientific men was now numerous enough for comradeship and still small enough not to be impersonal. As early as 1847, one scientist discovered that the “fewness of men well-grounded in science, and the disparity that exists between those claiming to be adepts” made especially likely in America “the formation of predominant cliques.”

As Bache himself stood before the AAAS in Albany to give his ad- dress as retiring president, he had another title also, the “Chief” of the Scientific Lazzaroni[2]. The membership of this group, whose stated purpose was to “eat an outrageously good dinner together,” centered in Bache, Henry, Peirce, Louis Agassiz, James D. Dana, C. C. Felton of Harvard, John F. Frazer of Philadelphia, the astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould, and the chemist Wolcott Gibbs. At that very meeting, the Lazzaroni were pushing for the establishment of a private national university in Albany. Later they tried something of the same thing in New York, and for a time backed the Dudley Observatory in Albany. Their enemies, including some eminent scientists, conceived of them as a clique either connected with the Coast Survey, because of Bache, or located in Cambridge, because of the towering eminence of Peirce, Agassiz, Felton, and Gould. Although all these men had important friends outside the group, the fact that they knew each other, saw each other regularly, and often cooperated was a condition of some importance on the scientific scene of the 1850′s. The Lazzaroni took Bache’s ideas of an institution of science seriously, and the time would come when they would do something about it[3].

A closing note. The scientists of that era were largely Earth scientists. The pure disciplines of physics and chemistry were far from their minds. By contrast, the link between their science and public benefit loomed large. Support for research was an issue, as was the need for an organized voice. The community lacked unanimity. They possessed no clear vision of the future; rather their view was murky, fragmented. They were feeling their way along.

Many of these comments would apply to today’s Earth observations, science, and services community.  Here’s a “forecast by analogy.” There’s a very good chance that 50-100 years from now, Earth scientists of the future will recognize that this period of years we’re now in was a similar transitional time during which the Earth sciences came of age. That same future audience, looking back, will appreciate that the discussions over one or two decades of the AMS Washington Forum played a pivotal role in incubating what became the shape of science policy in the 2050’s… two hundred years after the era of Alexander Dallas Bache and his contemporaries.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? See you tomorrow.


[1] The italicized material quoted here is excerpted from A. Hunter Dupree’s classic book, Science in the Federal Government: a history of policies and activities to 1940 (online version). (You may encounter a few glitches in the text resulting from the format of the on-line material.) The text is from Chapter VI: “Bache and the quest for a central scientific organization.” This is the same Alexander Dallas Bache who was the second head of the Survey of the Coast (now NOAA’s National Ocean Survey) after Hassler, and one of the foremost science policy leaders of his day.

[2] The earliest glimmerings of what would later become the National Academy of Sciences.

[3] I apologize for this lengthy quote, but not too much. It gives you a taste for Mr. Dupree’s mastery of his subject matter and his exquisite writing style. If you’re a reader of this blog you should want to study the book in its entirety. It sheds much light on how the science and science policy in this country we know today got to be that way.

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