Fourth Presidental History Symposium


Weather services as New Deal science policy hot spot

Kristine C. Harper, New Mexico Tech, Socorro, NM

Stung by accusations that the tragic loss of the airship Akron in 1933 resulted from a poor weather forecast provided by the US Weather Bureau, and buffeted by complaints about the Bureau from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Franklin D. Roosevelt knew he faced a potential science policy crisis. Henry A. Wallace, his Secretary of Agriculture, needed a way to quickly address the problems facing the nation's weather services along with the overwhelming farm issues of the Great Depression. Simultaneously, National Research Council chairman Isaiah Bowman needed a promising venue for the nation's most prominent scientists to influence governmental decisions. All of these issues came to a head in the Science Advisory Board, one of the more interesting and least understood science policy entities in the New Deal era.

However, the mission of Science Advisory Board members was not just to “fix” the problems at the Weather Bureau. SAB members, including MIT's Karl Compton, Cal Tech's Robert Millikan, and the Carnegie's John C. Merriam, each had a vision of what science in the United States should look like, who should do it, who should fund it, and to what purposes it should be pursued. Their visions were not identical. Indeed, Compton and Millikan—who conceived of an elitist science performed at institutions like their own—were soon at odds with Merriam, the prominent advocate for the national park system who had a more holistic and less utilitarian view of the role of science in society.

Using the very public service oriented Weather Bureau as their locus of operation, SAB scientists pushed their policy agendas all the way to the White House. Working behind the scenes with Washington's power brokers and through the media, they sought to radically change the role of science and scientists in American life. Drawing on previously unexplored archival records in the Library of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Archives, and the Roosevelt Presidential Library, I reevaluate the significance of the SAB for U.S. science prior to the outbreak of World War II.

wrf recording  Recorded presentation

Session 2, Meteorology: From Ben Franklin to Climate Change: Part II
Tuesday, 31 January 2006, 2:00 PM-5:00 PM, A310

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