Science in the Age of Invincible Surmise

Joseph Martin is a 2016-2017 National Science Foundation Research Scholar in residence at the Consortium. 

In 1951 James P. Adams, the University of Michigan provost, told a campus audience: “In due time historians will attempt to characterize the era in which we live as a part of the history of our civilization. As they view it in retrospect, they may see a number of distinguishing features, but I venture to suggest one which will be clearly discernible. It is an age of invincible surmise.” He was wrong. Historians, and historians of science in particular, have looked back on the early Cold War as an age of anxiety, in Jessica Wang’s words. It was an era jittery with nuclear fear, its denizens cowed by the threat of McCarthyism.
The project I have been pursuing as an NSF Research Scholar at the Consortium explores the ways in which Adams nevertheless seized on an important feature of the early Cold War era. I have been examining the ways in which universities and businesses formed research collaborations after World War II. Some of these stories are well known. At Stanford and MIT, the profusion of military money available for scientific work after World War II dramatically changed the campus research culture, and encouraged commercial collaborations that unfolded in the shadow of the military-industrial complex. This is the “Cold War university” that scholars such as Rebecca Lowen and Bill Leslie have described so well. But others fall into a different pattern, one that better accords with Adams’s seemingly quixotic vision of his own time.
The University of Michigan, in fact, eschewed government and military funding for its postwar nuclear research program—the Michigan Memorial–Phoenix Project—which doubled as a memorial to those in the university community killed in World War II. Concerned that the federal government would monopolize nuclear research, Michigan turned to its alumni and to the business community to fund this program, which provided seed grants to faculty studying nuclear physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering, and even food science, as well as to those confronting the challenges of a nuclear culture in history, sociology, anthropology, and law. 
Approaching industry as a way to protect freedom of academic inquiry might strike us as odd today, but it made sense within the distinctive culture of early–Cold War America, and similar attitudes guided industrial collaborations at other universities, in particular the University of Chicago, which funded its Basic Research Institutes, the offshoots of its Manhattan Project work, almost exclusively with industrial patronage for the first decade and a half of their operation.
I aim to set the case studies of Chicago, Michigan, and other institutions in a larger national context, and have conducted or plan to conduct research to that end at Consortium members Columbia University, Oregon State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Hagley Library, as well as the University of Texas, Purdue University, and Carnegie Mellon University. Thus far, my research has revealed two clear patterns that can help revise our understanding of the Cold War university, and of academy-industry collaborations. First, the concern that the US federal government would exert an overriding and unhealthy influence on the direction of American science was widespread in the early Cold War, was shared by academics and industrialists, and was not limited to a particular political ideology. Second, highly local factors often determined the approach various institutions took to collaborations with industry.
These stories are not only compelling in their own right—often because of the local color that comes with them—they also highlight three underappreciated features of the early Cold War and reveal certain tendencies in its historiography. The first is the extent to which we have understood the early Cold War through the prism of the late Cold War. When looking back through the haze of the Vietnam war, the arms race, the brutal racism that erupted in respond to the Civil Rights movement, and other developments of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, it is easy to see Adams’s optimism as aberrant or naïve. But this study indicates that his attitude was widespread and helped shape some auspicious scientific institutions.
Second, the focus on a few exceptional but not necessarily exemplary institutions has shaped, and in some ways distorted, our view of this era. Although Stanford and MIT managed to build themselves into powerful national research universities on the power of their buy-in to the military-industrial complex, they were also, like the other institutions I have studied, responding to highly local incentives. They embody one mode in which Cold War universities operated, but a fuller understanding required recognizing both higher education and the research trends within it as distributed phenomena.
Third, the motives we ascribe to industrial actors are often shaped by expectations fired in the kiln of neoliberalism. What is the quid pro quo? is a question that naturally springs to historians’ minds when we see industry investing in university research. But this instinct can lead us to overlook collaborations built upon a commitment to shared ideals—in this case the belief that a portion of basic research activity in the United States needed to be protected from government control, that universities were best equipped to conduct it, and that businesses had an obligation to support it as a business expense. This project illustrates that responses to commercial incentives are not hard-wired into the circuity of corporations—as they sometimes appear to be from the standpoint of our neoliberal moment—and that the specifics of cultural context also constrain corporate behavior.
Adams cribbed the phrase “invincible surmise” from George Santayana, who rhapsodized of Christopher Columbus: “To trust the soul’s invincible surmise / Was all his science and his only art.” Although he might have misjudged us future historians, Adams did capture something of his own time, namely, the feeling of moving maplessly into unfamiliar waters and the sense of possibility that came with it. Understanding this mindset, I contend on the basis of my research on this project, is critical to understanding the scientific and technical institutions that emerged and grew in the early Cold War.