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Shaping Biology

, 408 pages

1 line drawing

July 2000


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Shaping Biology

The National Science Foundation and American Biological Research, 1945-1975

Historians of the postwar transformation of science have focused largely on the physical sciences, especially the relation of science to the military funding agencies. In Shaping Biology, Toby A. Appel brings attention to the National Science Foundation and federal patronage of the biological sciences. Scientists by training, NSF biologists hoped in the 1950s that the new agency would become the federal government's chief patron for basic research in biology, the only agency to fund the entire range of biology—from molecules to natural history museums—for its own sake. Appel traces how this vision emerged and developed over the next two and a half decades, from the activities of NSF's Division of Biological and Medical Sciences, founded in 1952, through the cold war expansion of the 1950s and 1960s and the constraints of the Vietnam War era, to its reorganization out of existence in 1975. This history of NSF highlights fundamental tensions in science policy that remain relevant today: the pull between basic and applied science; funding individuals versus funding departments or institutions; elitism versus distributive policies of funding; issues of red tape and accountability.

In this NSF-funded study, Appel explores how the agency developed, how it worked, and what difference it made in shaping modern biology in the United States. Based on formerly untapped archival sources as well as on interviews of participants, and building upon prior historical literature, Shaping Biology covers new ground and raises significant issues for further research on postwar biology and on federal funding of science in general.

Toby A. Appel is Historical Librarian with the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, and research associate of the Section of History of Medicine.

"This is one of those rare books that historians and sociologists of science will use for a very long time as a valuable resource... Toby A. Appel's is a compelling and important story, written with a sense of humor and humanity."

"Appel has done a remarkable job. No subsequent historical work on NSF and the biological sciences can begin without building on the solid foundation she provides in Shaping Biology."

"Toby Appel does a thorough, scholarly job of bringing to life... the National Science Foundation."

"This path-breaking book on the National Science Foundation (NSF) represents the first detailed empirical study of this agency in the making of 'policy' for the life sciences in the United States since 1945."

"Based on previously unexamined archival sources, Appel's analysis is clearly presented and well documented. She provides critical policy context for NSF decisions in biology by discussing their elevance to NIH, other federal agencies, and both national and international political events."

" Shaping Biology will interest historians of science, biologists, anyone who has dealt with NSF, anyone who has worked there, and anyone interested in American science policy since World War II, because so much of what is written on that topic is focused on NSF. It was especially refreshing to see Vannevar Bush and the origins of NSF from the point of view of biology, because just about everything written on him and the founding is all about the history of physics. The book is clearly written and incorporates research from previously unused collections."

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