Category Archives: Helen

American science and the budget crisis

Last week’s issue of Science included a number of short articles on the effects of the budget crisis on science funding in the United States. Most emphasized the challenges that budget cuts present for administrators at NSF, NASA, NIH, and other science agencies who must determine the priorities for research funding. As I read the essays, I wondered about the contributions that taking a longer perspective on American science funding or the agencies involved might provide to these debates.

For example, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes about a dilemma facing NASA administrators, in particular those who manage the agency’s astronomy and planetary science initiatives. They reportedly must choose between supporting big-budget, high profile programs and the many smaller programs that gather little media attention. Bhattacharjee quotes one administrator who sees smaller programs as more important, in that they “maintain and train our next generation of scientists,” while another argues that the flagship programs and other high-profile projects are essential because they not only fund many researchers but sustain interest and momentum in aerospace research as a whole.

I suspect that this is a debate that has been ongoing for a long time (those out there who are more familiar with NASA history can tell me), visible not only now but also at other points in the agency’s past when funding dollars have seemed short. What would a look back at tradeoffs made in previous decades tell us about the effects of supporting flagships over small programs — or even about the rhetorical power of claims to maintaining and training scientists versus inspiring interest in aerospace science, both within the agency and among a broader public?

Or, to take another example, a piece by David Malakoff pointed out that the association of oceans and atmosphere in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is causing problems for ocean scientists, whose research budgets are pinched by the expensive satellite-based research programs associated with weather and climate monitoring. 

NOAA was formed in 1970 by bringing together a number of existing environment-related agencies. This makes me wonder whether the current division of interests was not always a problem in an agency, which though formed to foster “a better understanding of the total environment,” was cobbled together from organizations that had studied narrow aspects of that total environment.  If so, it might make sense to locate the problems faced by oceanographers not in the ever-more-sophisticated and ever-more expensive satellite technologies but in the organization of the agency itself, a conclusion that points towards a more radical intervention that mere budgetary juggling.

AmericanScience Goes to Cleveland

AmericanScience will be all over the place at the jointly-held annual meetings of HSS/SHOT/4S in Cleveland next week. We’re looking forward to meeting and talking with our readers! Let us know your ideas for topics, guest posts, interview suggestions, and general feedback. Here’s where to find us:


HSS: 9:00 – 11:45 AM

Blossom (4th Floor)

“Costs and Benefits: Life Scientists and the Assessment of Wartime Technologies, from 1945 to the Vietnam War”

Chair and Commentator: Karen Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University

1. Environmental Consciousness in the Cold War: Radioecologists, Nuclear Technology, and the Atomic Age, *Rachel Rothschild, Yale University
2. Quickening Nature’s Pulse: Mutation Plant Breeding at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Oregon State University
3. The Atomic Farmer in his Gamma Garden: Agricultural Research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1948-1955, Helen Curry, Yale University
4. The Area Should Be Treated as a Laboratory: Scientists, Controversy, and the Vietnam War, Sarah Bridger, California Polytechnic State University


4S: 8:30am – 10:00am

Crowne Plaza, Grand Ballroom – West

“Science and Commercial Culture: Competition, Cooperation and Assimilation”

Chair: Lukas Rieppel (Harvard University)

1. Publish When You Cannot Patent: Counterintuitive Relations Between
Early Modern Science and Commerce. Mario Biagioli (University of California, Davis)
2. Academies in the Press: The Structural Transformation of the Scientific Public. Alex Csiszar (Harvard University)
3. Vertical Integration and the Market for Vertebrate Fossils, 1890-1910. Lukas Rieppel (Harvard University)
4. Purity vs. Property? Entrepreneurship, War and Technoscience’s Changing Identity. Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds), Stathis Arapostathis (University of Leeds)

Discussant: Bruno Strasser (Yale University)

HSS: 9:00-11:45 am

Holden (4th Floor)

“Floating Labs: Mobile Scientific Spaces and the Reconfiguration of Practice “

Chair and Commentator: Helen Rozwadowski, University of Connecticut, Avery Point

1. Scientists Under Pressure: The Scientific Practices of a Cold War Underwater Laboratory, Nellwyn Thomas, University of Pennsylvania
2. Ship as Instrument: The R/V Alpha Helix and Human Biological Research, 1966-1977, Joanna Radin, University of Pennsylvania
3. The Tale of Bathybius: Of Sea, Ships, and Urschleim, *Emma Zuroski, Cornell University
4. The Oceanic Feeling in Human Biology: The Voyage of the Zaca, 1934-35, Warwick Anderson, University of Sydney

HSS: 1:30-3:30 pm

Severance (4th Floor)

“Knowing Society”

Chair: Dan Bouk, Colgate University

1. Early Modern Social Analysis: Nicolas de Nicolay on the Ottoman Empire, Chandra Mukerji, University of California, San Diego
2. Lamarckism and the Constitution of Sociology, Snait B. Gissis, Tel-Aviv University
3. Observation in the Social Field in Mid-20th Century America, Mary S. Morgan, London School of Economics and University of Amsterdam
4. Habitats of Organized Science: Louis Guttman and the Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, Tal Arbel, Harvard University

SHOT: 2:00-3:30 pm

Marriott Salon C

“Hot & Cold: Manipulating & Disciplining Bodies with Technologies of Temperature”

Chair and Commentator: Jonathan Rees, Colorado State University

1. Joanna Radin*, “Shock of the Cold: Freezers and the Preservation of Bodily Extracts”, University of Pennsylvania
2. Lisa Onaga, “A Silkworm for All Seasons,” Cornell University
3. Deanna Day, “The ‘Heart’s Knowledge’ of ‘Walking Biological Computers:’ How Domestic Thermometry Created a New Hybrid Subjectivity,” University of Pennsylvania

HSS: 4:00-6:00 pm

Halle (4th Floor)

“Pragmatism and the History of Science: James, Dewey, and Mead”

Chair and Commentator: Francesca Bordogna, University of Notre Dame

1. The Wealth of Notions: The Evolutionary Epistemology of William James, *Henry M. Cowles, Princeton University
2. Dewey before James: Evolution and the Organic, 1875-1889, Trevor Pearce, University of Wisconsin, Madison
3. Reading What Was Spoken: Classroom Notes in our Understanding of George Herbert Mead, Daniel R. Huebner, University of Chicago


HSS: 10am – noon

Van Aken (4th Floor)

“Bodies, Colonies, and Stem Cells”

Chair: *Hallam Stevens, Harvard University
Commentator: Andrew Yang, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

1. Weismann’s Authoritarian Cell State, Lukas Rieppel, Harvard University
2. Stem Cells and the Colonial Metaphor,*Hallam Stevens, Harvard University
3. Biological Kinds and Moral Categories in American Regulation of Human Embryo Research, Ben Hurlbut, Arizona State University

Moon Trees

A few weeks ago, Joanna joked that I should write a guest post on a subject she and I both find intriguing: moon trees. Even though I find myself joining AmericanScience as a regular contributor instead of a guest, and should probably begin a little more seriously, I find the topic too fun to pass on a chance to talk about it.

“Moon tree” usually refers to a tree grown from one of several hundred seeds that orbited the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. These were subsequently cultivated by the Forest Service and distributed across the country as seedlings. Many were planted in public spaces in celebration of the country’s bicentennial in 1976.

In one attempt to ascribe some meaning to these ceremonial “Bicentennial Moon Tree” plantings, President Ford connected them to American achievements, past and present: “This tree … is a living symbol of our spectacular human and scientific achievements. It is a fitting tribute to our national space program… May this young tree renew our deep-rooted faith in the ideals of our Founding Fathers.”

Sponsored in part by the Forest Service, the tree plantings were also meant to “mark the contributions forests have made to our way of life.” So when the first planting of a bicentennial moon tree took place in Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park, both Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa and Woodsy the Owl presided.

Space flight. Founding ideals. Forest stewardship. That’s a lot to ask of just one tree.

Having just heard a talk by Neil Maher of Rutgers/NJIT, whose work on the environmental history of the space race connects this history to many currents of American culture and politics in the 1960s and 70s, I know not to be too surprised by the mishmash of ideas represented in the bicentennial moon trees. Most obvious here is the entanglement of space exploration and environmentalism, i.e., the idea of “Honoring Earth’s Green World of Trees” with a plant that had come so near the barren, lifeless surface of the moon.

As I see it, the interesting aspect is less the potentially confusing symbolism and more that individual trees are rather transient tributes to these weighty subjects. As living symbols, they will by their very nature someday be dying symbols. The moon tree in Washington Square was taken down just a couple of weeks ago, apparently after nearly three years of being pretty much just a barren, lifeless trunk. Honoring Earth’s Green World of Trees, indeed.

So it seems like this idea went awry somewhere, right? Wrong. Wrong because “moon tree” now increasing applies to clones of the trees, or trees grown from seeds of the original trees. In 2009 NASA celebrated Earth Day by planting a second-generation moon tree at the National Arboretum. The Philadelphia tree has just been replaced with its own clone, a sapling sycamore. Apparently a few years ago you could even buy your own moon tree, derived from one of the original moon sycamores, direct from the American Forest’s Historic Trees program.

Which is why the moon trees are actually pretty brilliant: as living entities reproducible at minimal cost there is, theoretically, an infinite supply. Not only can the living symbol of the moon tree be made immortal, in a way, but it can also be widely distributed. We don’t even have to go back to the moon!

NASA made a call for information about the location and condition of the bicentennial moon trees, old and new, just this year. The amount of publicity it has generated demonstrates that people are still pretty interested in these space-age artifacts. And, unlike moon rocks (which can get you into big trouble) or pieces of spacecraft (except when they fall from the sky), I bet it’s pretty easy to gather your own space-race memento from some of the moon trees.

In short, these organic monuments are a successful if unconventional reminder of an intensely technological accomplishment, and perhaps also of the Founding Fathers and the need to prevent forest fires. But it’s not really because they call to mind a specific event in the history of spaceflight. It’s because they feed on – and quite literally multiply through – the imaginative appeal of space exploration and popular interest in its material artifacts.

It kind of makes you rethink plaques and concrete slabs, doesn’t it?