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A postwar guide to winning a science grant

20 March 2018

A 1946 booklet for Rockefeller Foundation officers emphasized applicants’ personal connections and future potential.

LBNL cyclotron
A 184-inch cyclotron at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was built in the 1940s with Rockefeller Foundation money. Credit: George Kagawa, courtesy of Berkeley Lab

In the early and mid 20th century, the Rockefeller Foundation was among a handful of philanthropic organizations whose grant and fellowship programs fundamentally transformed science in the US and internationally. It launched careers, nurtured breakthroughs, and even fostered entire fields of study: The term molecular biology was the coinage of Warren Weaver, head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s division of natural sciences. The officers, scientific advisers, and grantees from private foundations built an influential template for how other major funders of science, both in the US and abroad, made decisions about grants in the postwar period.

A common complaint about science funding today is that it’s not what you know but who you know that determines your proposal’s fate. In fact, officers at the Rockefeller Foundation did rely heavily on personal recommendations and connections to award their grant money—and they saw that as something to be celebrated. They believed that funds should go to scientists who could make a lasting impact, which required both good ideas and the ability to influence and inspire colleagues. That belief allowed the Rockefeller Foundation to take a relatively hands-off approach to scientists’ work while funding ambitious new developments. It also helped them rationalize a system that reinforced biases and inequities, with lasting consequences that scientific organizations continue to confront today.

“This strange but marvelous business”

Anyone who has participated in funding decisions knows that there can be a big difference between the official rules and the actual behind-the-scenes processes of soliciting applications and choosing grant recipients. Historians often look to times of transition to get a peek at unspoken practices and assumptions, since transitions often force historical actors to state explicitly what they had previously taken for granted.

Warren Weaver
Warren Weaver was head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s division of natural sciences from 1932 to 1959. Credit: Harold Haliday Costain, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Perhaps the most monumental transition for science funding in the 20th century came at the end of World War II. Weaver, anticipating that he would add new staff as his division of natural sciences returned to peacetime scientific philanthropy, decided to write down some notes on “this strange but marvelous business” of making grants at the Rockefeller Foundation. The result was N.S. Notes on Officers’ Techniques. The 1946 booklet surveyed the division’s funding practices and priorities with a focus on three recurring themes: how to establish the right expectations among current and prospective grantees, how to obtain and assess reliable information about potential grant recipients, and how to get the most value out of a grant.

Weaver urged Rockefeller officers to take pains to make the process of awarding money seem largely impersonal while at the same time cultivating the personal connections he believed they needed to award money wisely. Although Rockefeller officers’ individual opinions carried significant weight with the trustees who ultimately decided on funding, Weaver cautioned them to downplay their influence. “Any officer (who is presumably a human being) may at times be tempted to experience the sense of power that goes with being a Scientific Santa Claus,” he warned.

Weaver suggested Rockefeller officers refer in conversation to a nonexistent “committee” that would be evaluating the proposal, so applicants did not presume too much of the officer whose personal assessment, in reality, could make or break a grant. Another Weaver suggestion was never to explain the reasons for a rejection, as “explained declinations always bounce back.” Officers must also be cagey about future commitments, he wrote: If a star professor was contemplating a move from “Chilombia” to “Princeyard,” the officer should not promise that his funding would move with him.

Establishing clear expectations was essential because good relationships with scientists were the basis for finding promising grant applicants and awarding grants with the greatest possible impact. Rockefeller officers were expected to travel widely, to take meetings with scientists whenever they could, and to record their conversations in official diaries.

Weaver stressed that although the officer must remain businesslike, it was crucial that he “get to know the scientists,” including outside the laboratory and even “in his own home.” Within the labs, he recommended against formal interviews and favored “sitting on stools and smoking with them” instead. Getting close to applicants gave irreplaceable insights, he said, provided the officer took pains not “to become socially indebted to anyone”; he advised (though it wasn’t a rule) always “to give, rather than receive” meals and other entertainment and to write prompt thank-you notes for any hospitality received. Weaver favored firsthand impressions of a scientist over secondhand descriptions such as recommendation letters or evaluations from experts, which he compared to “buying out of a catalogue.”

Twice as good

Though they had advanced scientific training, officers were generally not expert in the fields in which they intervened and made no pretense of prioritizing what candidates knew. Instead, the Rockefeller Foundation encouraged them to use their understanding of how scientific communities operate to focus on being deeply informed about the who side of science.

The who questions helped Rockefeller officers find promising candidates and underwrote their predictions of those candidates’ prospects. Grants were not just about the specific project at hand. Weaver wrote that “we think it is necessary and proper to be interested in the personal qualifications (as contrasted with the intellectual qualifications) of fellowship candidates,” because “men of character and ability and vision” would lead their fields long after the grant expired.

Weaver's booklet
A page from Warren Weaver’s N.S. Notes on Officers’ Techniques. Credit: Rockefeller Archive Center

When Weaver wrote “men of character,” he really meant men. Weaver argued that, although they had “no prejudice against women scientists,” nevertheless “an attractive and intelligent female candidate for a fellowship has a time expectancy of scientific activity which is perhaps half as long as the expectancy of equally attractive and intelligent young men.” The presumed limited shelf life was due to an expectation of marriage and the concurrent expectation that a female scientist would leave her career after finding a husband. Therefore, “because we are essentially interested in training leaders for the future, a woman has to present a considerably stronger than average case to justify the extra risk.” Weaver thus established a literal double standard: Because of a made-up statistic of half-length career expectancy, women had to be twice as good to compete for Rockefeller money.

A similar double standard applied to members of other groups that could expect to experience discrimination. “Questions of race, color, religion, and politics are of themselves totally irrelevant,” Weaver wrote. “But we do care if any circumstance arising out of such otherwise irrelevant factors threatens to handicap or circumscribe the effectiveness of the candidate as a future leader in science.” Since bias and inequality already affected scientists’ potential to succeed, it was not just inevitable but obligatory for the Rockefeller Foundation to back applicants who were already privileged, on the grounds that this would make the grant as effective as possible. That focus on the long-term effects of a grant gave officers permission to sidestep ethical dilemmas in the name of getting the most value for the money.

Changes in the era of big science

Weaver wrote his booklet at a time when scientists’ sources of funding were rapidly changing. Private foundations continued to matter, especially at the earlier stages of careers and projects where a little open-ended funding could go a long way. But in sheer financial terms they soon became eclipsed by civilian and military government spending, ushering in an era of so-called big science.

However, the postwar influence of philanthropies should not be underestimated. Many of the scientists and policymakers who set up policies and procedures for NSF, the Office of Naval Research, and other major postwar funding agencies had direct or indirect experience with private scientific philanthropy. They built on those experiences as they created new funding bodies and developed new norms for evaluation, oversight, and other aspects of grant administration.

Over time, the complexities of large-scale scientific funding shifted evaluation procedures away from the kinds of personal judgments Weaver had prized. The bigger the bureaucracy, the more impersonal it must be to function. Social movements for civil rights and women’s equality drew attention to biases against women and minority candidates, sometimes leading to changes in how grant programs were executed or evaluated.

But the emphasis on future promise inherited from earlier models of funding continues to be important. We see it in the relative autonomy scientists are given to modify their course of research after a grant is funded. We see it when panelists deciding NSF graduate fellowships are told that they should fund the person, not the project. Above all, we see it in funders’ insistence on looking to the potential impact of a proposal, a necessarily subjective and personal judgment that never rests on ideas alone. Data about proposal funding make clear that those values and priorities continue to be associated with fewer opportunities for women and minority scientists, relative to white men.

Although many aspects of Weaver’s advice now seem outdated, the legacy of the Rockefeller funding model is with us in more ways than we might realize. In this hypercompetitive era of scientific funding, Weaver’s take on the extent to which high-stakes decisions boil down to gut convictions rings as true as ever. The question of awarding a grant was like asking “Is this egg fresh?” or “Do you love me?” he wrote. “If you need to hesitate at all, the answer is surely no.”

Michael J. Barany is a historian of science and mathematics and postdoctoral fellow in the Dartmouth College Society of Fellows. You can read about his work and access his other writings at mbarany.com.

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