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.
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