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As scientists and lovers of all things scientific prepare for the April 22nd March for Science, some potential participants have raised concerns about “politicizing” science. To some, the pursuit of truth stands beyond concerns about researchers’ treatment of transgender people, government funding for particular fields of study, or the career barriers facing scientists of color.

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But science has always been political, with questions about who pays for research, and who gets to do it, constantly influencing the type of work that gets done. In fact, as Paul Lucier explains, when the term “scientist” was widely adopted in Gilded Age America, the point was political—a way to separate the quest for knowledge from the growing use of technology as a way to create profitable businesses.

In the early nineteenth century, Americans with an interest in studying the natural world sometimes worried about who was and wasn’t doing legitimate science. One early effort to distinguish real “men of science” from dabblers who didn’t bother following the latest advances in Europe was the formation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1848. AAAS demanded that its officers and presenters be involved in “deep study” and “complete theory.”

But Lucier writes that the AAAS was distinctly uninterested in—maybe even hostile to—the notion of science as a profession. Unlike the American Medical Association, formed in the same year, the AAAS did not try to standardize degrees, licensing laws, or fees.

“They were devoted to promoting scientific research, not regulating its practitioners,” Lucier writes.

Still, for most people, practicing science required some way to make money. Mid-nineteenth-century men of science made money giving lectures and writing textbooks, but their most lucrative opportunities were in consulting. Mining companies hired geologists to study their mines and mineral lands. Chemists did work for manufacturers and gas companies. Physicists advised electrical and telegraph firms.

That opened them up to charges of modifying their finding to suit the companies that hired them, an issue that only got bigger as industry expanded after the Civil War.

In an influential 1883 speech, Henry A. Rowland, physics professor at Johns Hopkins University, took issue with commercially-minded science. To distinguish uncorrupted scholars of the natural world, he used the world “scientist.” That wasn’t a new word at the time, Lucier writes, but it hadn’t previously been widely used. And the job of scientist, as Rowland described it, was a new thing. It was only in the late nineteenth century that universities and the federal government had begun hiring large numbers of specialists to conduct research for non-commercial purposes.

Rowland was particularly concerned about professors, who should not “have wealth before them as the end of a successful career” but who nevertheless consulted for industry alongside their “pure” research duties.

This probably sounds quite familiar to anyone today who worries about intensely political questions like government support for studies on climate change, or the influence of corporate funding on university research programs.


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Isis, Vol. 100, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 699-732
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society