Why I Resigned from the National Academy of Sciences

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Why I Resigned from the National Academy of Sciences

by Richard C. Lewontin

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 4, September 1971, p. 6 – 8

At its 1971 annual meeting in Washington, I resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, to which I had been elected three years before. While the precipitating issue was the Academy’s secret war research, the contradictions involved in membership in such an organization run much deeper and transcend any particular immediate political situation. In many ways, the National Academy of Sciences embodies the chief dislocation of scientific and professional life so that an analysis of the Academy is an analysis, in miniature, of the social relations manifest in the scientific community at large.

An inquirer into the nature and history of the Academy will be told immediately that the Academy was founded by Abraham Lincoln to advise the federal government on the request of any agency, on scientific and technical issues. For the press, the Congress and other segments of the non-professional public, the element of unbiased scientific advisor to the government receives almost exclusive play by the public relations organs of the N.A.S. Indeed from its functional description one would get the impression that the N.A.S. is simply a government agency like the National Bureau of Standards or the President’s Science Advisory Commission, perhaps a branch of the Office of Scientific Technology. But there is a critical difference. The N.A.S. is not a government bureau of hired state functionaries; it is an Academy, that is, it is a club whose membership is restricted to those elected by the club itself. Moreover, it is a very exclusive club; on a per capita basis the most exclusive scientific club in the world (850 members from a scientific population of 300,000 as compared, say, to the Royal Society with a membership of 600 out of a population of only 50,000). It is this exclusive and elitist aspect which is the face shown to the scientific community. Membership in the N.A.S. is held out as the prestige goal to be aspired to by every scientist. Nor is prestige the only reward, for with such eminence come salary increases, unlimited professional mobility, entrepreneurial rewards and great political power in academic and professional life. Unlike the vastly more exclusive Nobel Prize or National Medal of Science, Academy membership is just inclusive enough to form part of the aspirations of developing professionals. Thus, it is a powerful tool in professionalization and its members serve as models to be emulated. We see, then, that the N.A.S. serves a double function related to its dual character as an institution. By emphasizing prestige and exclusivity to the scientific community, it is a professionalizing instrument; but at the same time it is a mechanism for coopting the profession into government service by linking the prestige of membership with the responsibility to respond to government initiatives on scientific and technical questions. I am reminded, when I contemplate the N.A.S., of the elementary schools in which the student with the highest marks is given as a reward a certificate and the position of — flag-bearer!

During World War I it became obvious that the membership of the Academy was incapable of bearing the load of responsibility for the huge amount and variety of technical and scientific advice needed by the government in the twentieth century. First, the Academy was too small and its members busy with their other professional affairs, and second, its members were too old. (Even after recent attempts to enlarge and rejuvenate the membership, the average age is 62 and one quarter of the members are 70 or over.) Several alternatives were possible. The membership could have been drastically enlarged and packed with younger people, or a separate government agency, like the N.I.H., could have been created with a full-time bureaucratized staff. But either of these would have destroyed the essential synthesis of independent prestige and unquestioning state service. Instead, Woodrow Wilson asked the Academy to set up the National Research Council, a body of full-time functionaries and part-time expert advisors and committee members drawn from academic and industrial ranks, but all serving under the direct responsibility of the National Academy of Sciences. The N.C.R. is referred to in all documents as the operating arm of the Academy, and in fact, the two are usually linked as the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council. This device explicitly completes the union of prestige and practice, for no member of the Academy need himself or herself actually engage in government business. As explained to me in a letter from the president of the Academy, Phillip Handler, the N.C.R. simply uses the prestige of the Academy to recruit members of its committees and working groups.

How does the system actually operate at the present time? First, the membership of the Academy at large does little else but elect new members and write obituaries of dead ones (they are much more energetic in the former than the latter activity; Einstein’s obituary essay is still unwritten). There is a vast and baroque apparatus for election to membership involving a number of ballots, petitions, committee meetings and politics. The result, as expected, is a heavy representation of a few elite universities (15% from Harvard & M.I.T.) and a miniscule proportion of women (7) and blacks (1). Second, there is an inner academy consisting of the officers, members of the Council and some of their friends, who carry on the real business. Partly from the structure of the bylaws and partly from the lassitude of the membership at large, the Councils and officers are a self-perpetuating group of the younger (50’s and early 60’s), more aggressive and politically motivated members. Of the current 16 members of the council, 12 are administrators of one kind or another, ranging from Vice-Presidents of A.T.&T. and I.B.M. to several academic department chairmen and institute directors. This inner academy usually handles dissidents by squashing them if they can or coopting them if they have to. They tried to do both with me, but since they had never before had to deal with radical dissidence, their standard methods of dealing with smart liberals like Clement Markert (now a Council member) or dumb reactionaries like William Shockley (now a laughing-stock), failed. The Council can also interfere in the election of Academy members by inserting several nominees of their own in the last stages of the election. This enables them to reward faithful servants of the Academy or the profession, or to punish dissidents not yet in the Academy as they did at the last meeting when Lamont Cole was denied membership because his public statements on air pollution ran counter to Handler’s own line.

There are interesting lines of relation between the inner Academy and other academic and national political scenes. The previous President of the N.A.S. but one, Detlev Bronk, stepped down to become the first President of Rockefeller University (he was chairman of the R.U. Presidential search committee!). The next President of the N.A.S., Frederick Seitz when he stepped down became Bronk’s successor as President of Rockefeller (he was chairman of his search committee!). The current President of the N.A.S., Phillip Handler, was head of the National Science Board that runs the National Science Foundation and was the other leading candidate for the Presidency of Rockefeller University. The current Vice President of the Academy, George Kistiakowsky, was chairman of the President’s Science Advisory Commission under Eisenhower and, together with Council member Paul Doty, is a member of the self-appointed Cambridge disarmament group that has an inside track with the White House, since Doty is a buddy of Henry Kissinger.

The inner Academy sometimes takes on the role of enforcer of territorial rights when it looks as if poaching is going on. When I arrived at the Academy’s marble palace in Washington to attend my first annual meeting in 1969, I found Handler and a number of my professional acquaintances climbing into a long black limousine. This was the inner academy, as it turned out, on their way to the White House, to castigate Nixon for his interference in the appointment of Franklin Long as Director of the N.S.F. because Long had opposed the A.B.M. Nixon, new to the neighborhood, had not yet learned to smell where the other dogs had peed. He got the message, made a public apology, and has since steered clear of pure science. Anyway, there isn’t much percentage in it.

It is through its overseeing of the National Research Council that the inner academy does most of its direct service to the state. The N.C.R. will provide answers to any technical or scientific question posed by a government agency provided it has the competence. Questions of the use to which this knowledge is to be put, or the policies of the government requesting the information, are considered irrelevant.

Thus, the activities of the N.A.S.-N.R.C. are the classic example of the artificial separation of technology from politics that is the unshakeable principle of academic science. Moreover, the falseness of this doctrine is nowhere more patent than in the activities of the N.A.S.-N.R.C. The N.R.C. has, among its standing committees, one on Undersea Warfare and one on Mine Warfare. If the latter were asked for a feasibility study of mining Haiphong Harbor (for all I know or can know, it has already done so), it would carry out such a study up to its limit of competence. But, of course, mining Haiphong Harbor is not a political question since both Democratic and Republican administrations have made war in Indochina. In the social sciences, the same sort of thing goes on. The Division of Behavioral Science of the N.R.C. has just completed a report on the relationship between the Department of Defense and the social science community. A good deal of this report is devoted to how the social science community can be organized to better serve the D.O.D.

The range of services offered by the N.R.C. to the government obviously implies that some work will be classified. It is not only war-making reports that have security classifications, however. The N.R.C. is often asked to advise on the effectiveness of some compound or industrial process. To do so requires complete knowledge of the composition and/or industrial process involved. Corporations refuse to divulge this knowledge unless their “proprietary rights” are guaranteed; that is, unless the knowledge is kept secret. The result is that most members of the Academy are barred by law or administrative process from knowing what various working groups of the N.A.S.-N.R.C. are doing. In many cases even the title of the research is classified. At the last meeting of the Academy we were treated to the reading by Kistiakowsky of the specially sanitized titles of the projects (“Summer Study on Aircraft Communication”). Since the membership at large cannot know what is going on, who does? The Council? There is no requirement for security clearance in election to the Council, and some members are not likely to be cleared (one fought in Spain, for example). The President and Vice-President, then? Neither position requires clearance, but incidentally both incumbents are cleared at the highest level since both were members of P.S.A.C. Obviously the Academy cannot carry on its business unless some informal arrangements guarantee that the top of the inner academy is of unquestioned and unquestioning patriotism and loyalty. As for the membership at large, whatever their own politics, at the very least they must be willing to put their scientific prestige at the unquestioned disposal of the patriotic few at the top. When I have brought this question out, I have been enjoined by more than one member to “trust Kisty.”

The particular issue of secret research is so deeply embedded in the nature of the Academy that its resolution would require a resolution of the fundamental contradiction implicit in the organization. The coupling of the highest prestige with unquestioned service to the state is a scheme of legitimation of state service on the one hand, and on the other a mechanism of coopting into the establishment system a professional group, which because of its own elitist, internationalist and intellectually rebellious tendencies, contains germs of dissidence and obstructionism. For the Academy to. refuse classified work, whether industrial or governmental, would destroy the legitimation scheme and alienate the government. It would affirm the political content of technological and scientific research, because it would raise criteria other than scientific competence for the acceptability of research. More deeply, it would affirm that men and women will refuse to assent blindly to acts of which they have no knowledge or over which they have no power. On this last issue there can be no compromise on either side. It is an issue that is beyond reform. It is the issue around which a social revolution must be fought.

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