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Rethinking industrial patronage of academic research in the early Cold War

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Agnes Bolinska.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University of Chicago’s erstwhile chancellor, remarked in 1963: ‘My view, based on long and painful observation, is that professors are somewhat worse than other people, and that scientists are somewhat worse than other professors.’ This outlook motivated his efforts to insulate Chicago’s scientists from industrial and military influence after World War II. Perhaps unexpectedly, Chicago’s science faculty embraced Hutchins’s plan to fund three ambitious new research institutes with numerous small subscriptions from industry, which Hutchins hoped would diffuse any one corporation’s influence, seeing in the plan a way to protect their basic research ideal. The University of Michigan deployed a similar strategy to attract industry funding post–World War II. Michigan pursued industrial partnerships to support a laboratory that doubled as a living war memorial, enlisting businesses by appealing to corporate responsibility and suggesting a shared obligation to prevent government control over basic research. In each case, businesses contributed generously, often because they shared concerns about government monopoly on critical sectors of scientific research.

Historians have shown how some university-industry collaborations intertwined with the military-industrial-academic complex during the Cold War. MIT and Stanford, for instance, cultivated a cosy relationship with both industry and government, at times steering their research towards economic and military interests. Studies of this type of relationship have shaped current historical understanding of Cold War science. They suggest that individual institutions possessed little latitude to craft the relationships with industry they thought conducive to their institutional goals. A broader survey of institutions, and engagement with industry’s own motives for supporting academic science, will situate existing understanding of academia-industry partnerships within a larger, knottier story about American science, technology, academia and industry. I present the Chicago and Michigan cases and describe how they motivate systematic re-evaluation of industrial patronage and its place in Cold War science.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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