Audra Wolfe makes clear that the meticulously researched Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science was in preparation long before Donald Trump entered the presidential race. In 2019, however, it is hard to imagine a history of science that is more timely than one that situates our current political environment in the context of the Cold War.

A sign at the 2017 March for Science in San Francisco, CA.

A sign at the 2017 March for Science in San Francisco, CA.

Close modal

As Wolfe notes in the epilog, the post-2016 sociopolitical moment gave rise to the March for Science movement, which sought to “apolitically” defend science’s role as “a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” But, as Wolfe explains in the text that precedes that observation, the notion that science is free from politics has the most political of origin stories. US intelligence organizations crafted that message as part of anti-Communist propaganda campaigns both at home and abroad. In other words, March for Science organizers who insisted that it was possible for science to be apolitical were in fact making themselves spokespeople for old propaganda.

Is the propaganda wrong? Given the dearth of history of science in science curricula, it’s hard to imagine that scientists are on the whole equipped to make an informed assessment. To come up with an answer, scientists will have to consult their consciences and study difficult and potentially embarrassing history. In that sense, Wolfe’s text is essential reading for both students and scientists who have been immersed in the idea of science as an apolitical pursuit.

Freedom’s Laboratory is at turns unsurprising and terribly shocking. While it is hardly news that the Central Intelligence Agency and other US government entities believed in the importance of cultural propaganda during the Cold War, what caught me off guard was the sheer number of scientists whom I recognized and what they were up to. For example, I knew that James Webb—for whom the oft-delayed but promising NASA James Webb Space Telescope is named—was a homophobe who went to great lengths to ensure that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people were excluded from NASA employment. But I was unaware of his significant, and in my view questionable, role in Cold War politicking as a leading advocate for the development and use of psychological warfare. I found myself surprised that those activities never came up in all the recent discussions about Webb’s failed politics.

Wolfe highlights an interesting contrast between Soviet scientists, who were disproportionately active in human rights organizing relative to their countrymen, and US scientists, who arrived at human rights work relatively late in the game. In both cases, most scientists went along with their governments, but it was Soviet scientists and not Americans who were more likely to use their scientific training to question what their government was feeding them and demanding of them. I wish the book had spent more time on those Soviet–US contrasts because of their relevance to current conversations about how a sense of political urgency arises—or doesn’t—in scientists.

The chapter on the CIA-backed Asia Foundation’s efforts to use translations of biology textbooks as propaganda in Taiwan caught me off guard. I had some quibbles with Wolfe’s presentation, which could have done more both to acknowledge that Taiwan is a nation distinct from China and to question language that suggests Taiwan is historically unscientific and undeveloped.

But ultimately what I found most striking about the chapter was the heavy dose of politics in the biological knowledge tests Wolfe analyzes. Here is one sample multiple-choice question, first offered to US schools and then translated for Taiwanese classrooms: “In discussing our country’s disarmament policy, a famous scientist declared that we must continue our experimenting with nuclear bombs. What is the best evaluation we can give to this scientist’s statement?” The question is obviously not about biological knowledge. Rather, the bizarre list of possible answers—for example, “His conclusion is probably right, since he approaches the problem with a scientific attitude”—is designed to undercut students’ confidence in their right to disagree with the scientific establishment.

I have difficulty imagining how students can grow into open-minded scientists if that is how they are socialized into scientific thought, yet that messaging is the intellectual food my academic grandparents were fed. It is messaging that their advisers and heroes, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, helped craft. Given that history, it’s hardly surprising that many scientists still struggle to support students and colleagues who deviate from established norms.

Furthermore, as Wolfe notes, “the particular version of ‘scientific freedom’ promoted by postwar scientific administrators and US propaganda was a racist, sexist, and antidemocratic vision of science.” Wolfe writes that “Vannevar Bush’s generation assumed that scientists operated in a meritocracy” while ignoring the “routine discrimination and structural barriers that severely limited … minorities’ access to scientific careers.” Years later March for Science organizers once again echoed old propaganda when they cited their desire to be “apolitical” to justify ignoring the fundamental political needs of minoritized scientists. The march paid lip service to diversity only after significant pressure from those scientists.

As a Martin Luther King Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT for nearly five years, I spent a decent amount of time in the Vannevar Bush Room. I will never look at its name the same way again, now that I’ve read about Bush’s efforts to protect US scientists from having to be accountable to anyone but themselves. Rather than seeing him as a scientific hero, I now see him as a leader who successfully took science’s relationship with society in a questionable direction. Readers of Freedom’s Laboratory may find that they too will see familiar names in a different light.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a particle cosmologist with an interest in science, technology, and society studies. She is an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.