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Natural Sciences

"This is an age of science. All important fields of activity from the breeding of bees to the administration of an empire call for an understanding of the spirit and technique of modern science. The nations that do not cultivate the sciences cannot hold their own."

Wickliffe Rose 


Biochemical laboratories at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla (Calif.), 1949

Biochemical laboratories at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla (Calif.), 1949

More than any other concept, science has defined the purpose and institutional culture of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF). From the beginning, the RF dedicated itself to “scientific giving." Its public health work applied scientific research to pressing health problems. Its campaign to improve farming worldwide relied on “scientific agriculture." In the mid-twentieth century, it created an entire research program dedicated to “the science of man." Even its support of the social sciences aimed to make those fields more scientific than humanistic. Although the Foundation periodically encountered the unsettling results of science (the atomic bomb, eugenics, and the environmental consequences of chemical pesticides), it never rejected the fundamental tenets of scientific thinking.

What was scientific about the RF’s notion of “scientific giving"? The Foundation’s programs mirrored the academic research it funded. It consistently used data gathered through investigation and observation, and it never undertook a major new initiative without conducting a thorough survey of existing needs and resources. The same principle applied to selecting grantees: RF officers became experts in their respective fields and discovered promising new candidates through a carefully cultivated network of scholars and scientists. Finally, the Foundation judged its endeavors by measurable results, appraising and revising programs according to feedback it received. 

The RF's commitment to science funding went through three distinct phases. Beginning in 1917, it channeled money for post-graduate fellowships in physics and chemistry through the newly established National Research Council (NRC). When longtime Rockefeller employee Wickliffe Rose took the helm of the International Education Board (IEB) in 1923, he developed a system to administer these fellowships directly and soon raised the level of physics scholarship in the U.S. through exchanges with better-trained European scientists. Many Europeans chose to stay and work in the increasingly well-developed American universities (often also supported by the RF). By the late 1920’s, U.S. physics and chemistry programs were world class.

Drawing of the two hundred inch Palomar Telescope, Mount Palomar (Calif.), 1938

Drawing of the two hundred inch Palomar Telescope, Mount Palomar (Calif.), 1938

The RF moved into its second phase of science funding when Warren Weaver took over the Division of Natural Sciences in 1932. Using Rose's IEB as a model, Weaver and his staff built a targeted program in “experimental biology" that continued to revolve around fellowships but also included project grants. Weaver’s big idea was deceptively simple: to apply the techniques of the more advanced hard sciences to the less-understood life sciences. By the late 1930s, mobilizing new technologies made possible by RF money, Weaver's attempt to strengthen biology had actually helped invent the field of “molecular biology” (Weaver himself coined the term). Many of the technologies, laboratories and scientists funded during Weaver's tenure were pressed into service during World War II. At war’s end, a new complex of government and industry-funded research emerged, and molecular biology grew in strength and capacity, revolutionizing scientific understanding in the second half of the twentieth century.

Weaver also engineered the third phase of RF science funding, which sought to discover more practical applications of scientific knowledge. The war had not only shut down the RF’s European operations, it had rendered the Foundation shaken and wary at its lack of control over the deployment of research and tools it had funded. Pinpointing the future political importance of world food needs, the Foundation launched an agriculture program in Mexico in 1943. The Mexican program, operated directly by the RF, put plant scientists to work breeding wheat and corn that would be higher yielding and disease resistant. In 1952 agriculture was incorporated formally into the Division of Natural Sciences. As Weaver argued, agriculture was simply "the application of the principles of biology and other natural sciences to the art of growing food."[1]

From this point forward, agriculture provided the arena in which the RF's scientific experience, network of contacts, and financial investments would coalesce. Hybrid grains developed in the Mexican program, as well as improved soils and fertilizers, spread throughout Latin America and across Asia, eventually dubbed the "Green Revolution." In the early 1970s, like many other leaders in the developed world, the RF despaired over the apparent failure of science to change persistent problems like over-population, pollution, and unequal access to resources. For several years it looked to the humanities for an antidote to "a massive scientific and technological machine run wild."[2] But ultimately science persisted as the Foundation’s most trusted approach. 

By the 1980s the RF turned back to molecular biology, funding programs for vaccine development, rice biotechnology and genomic mapping. The Foundation also re-examined every aspect of the Green Revolution, incorporated its lessons, and retooled it for Africa. Despite its moment of doubt following the horrors of world war, the Foundation in the twenty-first century has found its way back to its core belief, expressed in 1946: “Civilization is not being betrayed by science. The betrayal, if it comes, will be by men who do not know how to use science wisely.”[3]

[1]Warren Weaver, “The World Food Problem,” Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3.1, Series 908, Box 14, Folder 144.

[2]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1972 (New York, The Rockefeller Foundation, 1972) 5. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)

[3] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1946 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1946) 27. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)