Congress, scientists, and the subpoenas: the Prequel.

William B. Allison

William B. Allison

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. – Ecclesiastes 1:9-10.

Those ensnarled in the current confrontation between Congress and scientists might take some (admittedly cold) comfort in the recognition that such dustups have occurred before and will no doubt flare up again. Perhaps the biggest of these involved the Allison Commission, named after its chair, Senator William B. Allison of Iowa. His bipartisan, joint committee (three members each from the House and the Senate) has been described as “among the first to explore the question of whether federal intervention politicizes scientific research.” (sound familiar? It’s the same rallying cry heard today from both sides of the present controversy.)

Never heard of the Allison Commission? You’re in good company. It doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry; hard to imagine in today’s age. But you can find the story, well-told, in several sources[1].They’re worth reading in their entirety! What follows is only my ham-fisted effort to merge the three narratives while boiling them down to less than 1000 words.

The Constitution’s relative silence on science created opportunities for science advocates to promote federal support of science, but it also paved the way for interested politicians to exert control. Then as now, “opponents of science” were vilified by scientists, but the reality was the Congressional concerns were about control of science policy.

The Allison Commission had the rather imposing formal title of The Joint Commission to Consider the Present Organizations of the Signal Service, Geological Survey, Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department. For background: the Signal Service of the Army included what is today’s National Weather Service. At the time it included a training facility at Fort Myer (named after Albert Myer, the first leader of the Signal Service). The Coast and Geodetic Survey is now embedded within NOAA’s National Ocean Service.  Members of Congress were concerned about costs, duplication and redundancy, and whether it was appropriate to house research activities within the military.

To start, the Allison Commission asked the advice of the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS obliged by submitting a report in 1884. It called for the consolidation of the coastal and interior work of the Coast Survey with the Geological Survey under Interior, and the transfer of the hydrographic work of the Survey to the Navy. But it went further, calling for all the scientific bureaus to be placed under a single, Cabinet-level Department of Science (!). In making these recommendations, it referred to three principles of science policy: Congress should not undertake any work which can be equally well done by the enterprise of individual investigators; government should not compete with universities; and government support should be confined to the increase and systemization of knowledge tending to promote “the general welfare” of the country. This report established durable principles, but didn’t anticipate or address Congressional interest in another direction: the internal workings of the bureaus and how they could be controlled by Congress. The Commission held hearings over a two-year period. John Wesley Powell, then head of USGS, was particularly influential. According to Guston:

…Powell lectured the commission on the two classes of scientific work conducted by the government: the “constructive work” of “applied science,” performed for example by the Corps of Engineers; and the “original investigation” that “purely scientific institutions,” such as the Geological Survey, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Signal Service “were designed for.” Because such scientific institutions required constant modification, Powell argued, “it will thus be seen that it is impossible to directly restrict or control those scientific operations by law.”

Powell went on to argue that the science agencies should be free to pursue research without any external control. According to Guston, Powell added for good measure, “scientific men are, as a class, the most radical democrats in society… restive and rebellious when their judgments are coerced by superior authority.”  Powell’s articulation was undermined somewhat by his counterparts. Hilgard of the Coast Survey, for example, stressed that he did not like “the work of the survey considered in the light of what you properly call scientific…it is economic, of practical value… though some science comes of it.”

The bureaucrats thought that if they could convince the six members of the Allison Commission to share their view of the nature of science, the Commission would also acquiesce about its organization. But the Commission wasn’t buying. They saw nothing inherent in the nature of science that should prevent Congressional influence on the way it should be organized and administratively controlled.

Eventually, at the end of the two years, the Commission affirmed the worth of science but refused to organize it into a single department, preferring the science to remain close to, and relevant to the needs of the respective Cabinet missions. They also ensured continued Congressional control, especially over fiscal accountability (versus micro-managing the scientific direction per se). One means they used – important in that day and time – was stricter control over printing; the Commission saw the printing budgets of the agencies as extravagant, and much of the publishing of maps and charts, etc. as redundant and duplicative. They left the Signal Service for the moment within the Army (though in1890 it would be transferred to USDA). But they limited the number of Signal Service officers, and they eliminated the training facility at Fort Myer. Finally, they mandated that USGS break out/itemize its budget instead of requesting a single aggregate funding level, each year.

There’s so much more to this story – the influence of the powerful personalities in both the legislative and executive branches and their alliances and disagreements; the accompanying rise and fall in their political fortunes, the attempts to game the political process and more. But hopefully this hints at an interplay not so different from that of today – or what our children and grandchildren will see fifty years from now.

In fact, the happiest aspect of this narrative is that we know how the subsequent century played out. Between 1886 and 2000, US science assumed a dominant place in the world. This benefited all Americans to be sure,but it also made life better for seven billion people over the entire globe. We can only hope and pray that a century from now, Earth’s peoples will be able to look back at this current conflict between Congress and science in the same positive light: a hiccup in a productive, enduring collaboration between US scientists and policymakers, everyone pulling in the same direction, for the benefit of life.


[1] (1) A Hunter Dupree’s masterpiece, Science in the Federal Government: A history of policies and activities until 1940 (Harper Torchbooks, 1957). This is available online in an awkward-to-use-but free format here. (2) Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists, Vintage Books (1979), p51-59. (3) David Guston’s excellent paper, published by Springer, and available only at a price, unfortunately: Congressmen and Scientists in the Making of Science Policy: the Allison Commission 1884-1886.

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