The Culture of Science

Scientific Institutions and Societies: Types of institutions and their influence

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Did you know that science doesn't happen in isolation? We may picture scientists working alone to make discoveries, but being part of a larger community is essential to science. Even in the 16th century, Galileo, like modern scientists, relied on support from the university where he taught, funding from wealthy supporters, and membership in a scientific academy.

We all make use of different types of institutions. Banks provide us credit to make the process of buying and selling things easier. Telephone companies provide us with access to vast wireless and wired networks that allow us to speak with friends by simply dialing their telephone number. And colleges and universities allow us to learn from experienced teachers and mentors that we might not otherwise meet in the course of our lives. You may not have thought of it this way before, but as part of an academic institution, you not only have access to the resources of that institution – professors, buildings, classes – but you are part of a community of people with shared interests and goals. Within that setting, there are clubs that students can join depending on their specific interests – sports teams, student groups, different living communities, even study groups – all of which are smaller collections of individuals with similar interests and/or skills. To each of these groups, we all bring our own interests and skills, and we benefit from the interactions with others.

Scientists also have institutions that support them, and they work within a community of individuals with whom they share ideas. For example, academic institutions support research by scientists and other scholars as part of their broader educational missions, federal agencies and private foundations often provide funding to support researchers, and scientific societies support and promote communication and collaboration between scientists. And yet, it is easy to forget the role of these support structures and focus just on the scientists who make discoveries.

We picture Galileo Galilei looking through his telescope in a remote Italian village or Gregor Mendel counting peas in the isolation of an Augustinian monastery – both alone, working. But Galileo had a position at the University of Pisa starting in 1588, which provided him with a stipend; in return, he tutored students and taught classes there. He sought funding for his work from the wealthy and influential Medici family. And he was a member of the Lyncean Academy, a small group of European scientists who met regularly to discuss science and who published several of Galileo's works. These various institutions with which he was involved were crucial to his career as a scientist and led to widespread recognition of some of his most fundamental research.

Figure 1: Undergraduate students presenting their research at a poster session.

image ©Visionlearning, Inc.

Galileo was one of the first scientists to take on the many roles that are common among scientists today. As in any other human endeavor, individual scientists rely on the support of several institutions, and the nature of those institutions varies widely. A high-school teacher is an individual who possesses knowledge to teach students, but that teacher is part of a school and a school district, and may belong to other professional organizations that help support him or her as a teacher. Science is no different: Scientists are individuals with particular knowledge and understanding, but they cannot act alone.

Types of scientific institutions

Scientists are supported by at least three different kinds of institutions: research institutions, funding institutions, and professional societies.

Research institutions physically house scientists and provide research facilities; they include many colleges and universities, government organizations like the US Geological Survey, and corporations like DuPont or Exxon-Mobil.

Professional societies facilitate the communication of the results of scientific research and foster the development of scientific communities, hosting meetings like the one shown in Figure 1. These societies may be specific to a discipline, such as the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, or broad and all-encompassing, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Funding institutions, like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, provide grant money to scientists through a competitive process so that they can conduct research.

An individual scientist may work at one or more research institutions, belong to several professional societies, and receive funding from multiple sources – all of which can influence a scientist's research. Likewise, the institutions are influenced by the communities of scientists that make up their membership.

The role of the research institution

We now consider it normal that many scientists are professors at universities, teaching classes while conducting research and advising students, but this has not always been the case. When Cambridge University was established in England in the 1200s, there were no professors; the men who taught courses of study (and they were, indeed, all men) had completed the same course of study themselves and were considered Masters. These men did not conduct any sort of research, and teaching was a matter of handing down the same information that they themselves had been taught.

During the 1500s and 1600s, the makeup of universities began to change when members of the English royalty endowed several professorships at Cambridge and Oxford, providing stipends for the recipients. Attaining one of these coveted positions meant going beyond the given course of study and conducting original research; as a result, the university became a place where new knowledge was generated. One of the most famous of the endowed professorships, the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, was established in 1663 at Cambridge University by Henry Lucas, a Member of Parliament (Bruen, 1995). The fame of this position derives from its second holder: Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was appointed Lucasian Chair in 1669 and held the position until 1702, during which time he produced his most important works like the Principia. The support offered through the position at Cambridge gave Newton the freedom to pursue research that was of interest to him, without which we may not have seen Newton's Laws of Motion when we did. The Lucasian Chair still exists today, and the current holder of the position is another very well-known scientist: theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

Figure 2: Scanned original of the first page of Einstein's first letter to FDR. Click on letter to see full-size versions of both pages.

The establishment of funds to support individual scientists within the university was a critical step in creating the scientific research institution, but universities are not the only place where scientific research occurs. Many major research institutions are part of the government: In the United States, for example, government-run research institutions include the US Geological Survey (USGS), Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and NASA. The establishment of these research institutions was often in response to a broad initiative within the government, such as the exploration of the western territories in the 1860s that led to the consolidation of several different groups of surveyors into the USGS.

Similarly, World War II strongly influenced the development of scientific institutions. In response to a series of letters in 1939 and 1940 from Albert Einstein (see Figure 2) warning of the possibility of the development of nuclear weapons by Germany, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the War Department to begin work on an atomic bomb. His order led to the establishment of a number of national laboratories in 1943, including LANL in New Mexico and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Scientists hired to work at these new national labs were not completely free to focus on the research that interested them (like Newton at Cambridge); instead they were asked by the government to focus on specific problems that fostered the development of nuclear weapons. The focus of research at LANL remained the development and testing of weapons until 1992, when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by President George H.W. Bush. Since then, LANL's mission has changed to focus on the science behind national security, which includes everything from securing nuclear weapons stockpiles to studying the possible effects of global warming.

Additionally, scientific research takes place at commercial corporations, where it is often described as "research and development," or R&D. In 1970, for example, the Xerox Corporation established its Palo Alto Research Center, known as Xerox PARC, to bring together researchers in information science, physical science, and engineering to create the "architecture of information" (see Resources). In this venue, fundamental scientific research was supported to the extent that it could contribute to the development of new technologies or products that could contribute to the overall theme of the architecture of information. The effort led to the development of photocopiers, initially, but the research branch of Xerox is perhaps most famous for its development of the mouse, first used with the personal computer by Apple in the early 1980s.

Comprehension Checkpoint
Scientific research can take place at

The role of the professional society

Research institutions are important support networks for most scientists. When those scientists are ready to share the results of their research with the broader scientific community, however, they often seek feedback and review from their peers through additional means – by presenting their work at meetings of societies like the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a professional scientific society with over 45,000 members from 140 countries. Part of the mission of the AGU is to "advance the various geophysical disciplines through scientific discussion, publication, and dissemination of information," accomplished through sponsoring meetings that bring members together and publishing journals of peer-reviewed work. Professional societies in other disciplines share similar missions, such as the Ecological Society of America, American Institute of Physics, and the American Chemical Society, to name only a few.

Professional societies play a critical role in fostering scientific progress. One of the longest-lived professional societies developed during the Scientific Revolution of the mid-1600s, when the concept of rigorous observation- and experiment-based science began to take hold in England. The Royal Society of London originated in the ideas of Francis Bacon. Bacon was not a scientist himself, but an English statesman and philosopher who published a book in 1620 entitled Instauratio Magna about the application of what we now might call the scientific research method. In it, he described the process of inductive reasoning, in which facts are collected and a theory is developed to explain those facts. This method stands in stark contrast to the Aristotelian process, known as deductive reasoning, in which reason was used instead of observation to determine explanations. Importantly, Bacon also viewed the scientific process as a community endeavor that required financial and philosophical support from institutions like governments and universities.

Figure 3: Frontispiece from the 1667 History of the Royal Society by Thomas Sprat. The figure on the right is Francis Bacon; Lord Brouncker, the first president is to the left of the bust of Charles II, the first patron of the society. Bacon is pointing to Boyle's apparatus for his gas experiments.

Bacon died in 1626, but his philosophy lived well beyond him and spread. In 1648, a group of scientists at Oxford University in England formed what they called an "experimental science club," and began to hold regular meetings at which they would conduct experiments and discuss the results. By including the word "experimental" in their title, this group acknowledged their adherence to Bacon's ideas about science rather than Aristotle's (see Figure 3). In November of 1660, the group became a more formal entity, drawing up a charter and naming themselves the Royal Society of London. The original twelve fellows of the Society included Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle, the scientist immortalized in Boyle's Law, which relates the pressure and temperature of a given mass of gas to its volume (eventually leading to the Ideal Gas Law). The fellows paid annual dues and met weekly to conduct scientific research largely through experiments (see our Experimentation module) or descriptive methods (see our Description module). This was a radical notion at the time – though several clubs existed where men would assemble to discuss science, the discussions at these clubs were not centered on developing new knowledge by actually conducting research (Gribbin, 2007).

The Fellows rotated responsibility for the weekly meetings, which soon proved challenging to coordinate. So in 1662, the Royal Society hired Boyle's assistant, Robert Hooke, as the Curator of Experiments, in which role he was responsible for devising and running the weekly research experiences. In 1665, the Society began publishing its journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, which described not only the events at the weekly meetings but the results of scientific investigations of its members outside the weekly meetings (see our Understanding Scientific Journals and Articles module).

The Royal Society set the stage for the modern professional society, officially recognizing the importance of the community in building scientific knowledge. Within the sciences, math, and engineering fields there are many thousands of professional societies all over the world. Individual scientists may belong to one or many, depending on their field, the variety of their interests, and the length of time they have been working as a scientist. For all scientists who wish to practice science, becoming a member of a professional society is an important step that gives them access to a community of peers from whom they can both learn and seek feedback on their own work.

In addition, many professional societies give awards to members to recognize achievement in scientific research. The American Chemical Society, for example, solicits nominations for 58 national awards in chemistry ranging from the Priestley Medal (in honor of Joseph Priestley), given to recognize distinguished services to chemistry, to the Paul J. Flory Education Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement by an individual in promoting undergraduate or graduate polymer education. As in any other profession, these awards recognize individuals who excel in their work and they are considered significant achievements for a scientist.

Comprehension Checkpoint
Professional societies are important to science primarily because they provide scientists with

The role of the funding institution

Research institutions and professional societies are essential to scientific progress and to the individual scientist, but most scientists need to seek additional financial support from outside sources. Historically, funding was sought through personal relationship with wealthy patrons; for example, the Medici family funded the work of a number of famous scientists including Galileo, and in turn, Galileo named the four largest moons of Jupiter that he discovered Medicea Sidera (the Medician stars).

More recently, governments have played a large role in funding scientific research. In the United States, the federal government is the largest single supporter of scientific research. Although the federal government has always supported research in the US (such as the scientific surveys of the West described in our module Description in Scientific Research), there were no federal agencies dedicated specifically to funding scientific research prior to World War II. In a way, WWII acted as a kind of "scientific revolution" in the United States, laying the groundwork for the establishment of federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF).

During WWII, Vannevar Bush led the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), established at the onset of the war to financially support research that had immediate application to wartime activities. Although the OSRD's mission was to focus on research with "immediate application" to the war effort, Bush realized that many of these applications relied on basic scientific research into materials science, physics, and many other disciplines; as a result, government support for so-called "basic" research nearly tripled over the war period. As the war ended and this office was destined to disappear, Bush wrote an influential essay in 1945 entitled "Science – The Endless Frontier," which advocated the development of a National Research Foundation (Bush, 1945). Bush believed that:

The Government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth. These responsibilities are the proper concern of the Government, for they vitally affect our health, our jobs, and our national security.

Figure 4: The logo of the National Science Foundation

image ©NSF

Throughout history, many governments have supported research in development of national defense. But Bush strongly advocated for government support for basic scientific research that may not result in immediate applications, and he suggested that funding be disbursed to scientists through a competitive grant process rather than through favor. Over the next five years, his proposal underwent criticism, revisions, and political dealings (Mazuzan, 1994). Finally, in 1950, Congress approved the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) (Figure 4) with an initial budget of $15 million, most of which would go to scientists to conduct research. Today, the NSF is one of the major funding institutions in the United States. In 2006, the NSF received 40,000 proposals, funded approximately 11,000 of them, and had a total agency budget of almost $5.6 billion, of which $4.3 billion went to scientific research.

Many other US government agencies provide funding for scientific research, including the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense. In fact, the development of this text that you are now reading was funded by the US Department of Education, and part of that money went to bringing experts together to discuss what should be included in a series of readings about the process of science and the role of scientific institutions in the scientific process. In 1997, total government spending on science and scientific research in the United States was recently estimated at 2.5% of total gross domestic product, or approximately $300 billion (May, 1997). Federal research funding proposals are commonly judged based on both their relevance to a funding agency's priorities and the scientific merit of the proposal as determined by peer review, so proposals that are submitted to most agencies are reviewed internally as well as sent out to other scientists to be reviewed (see our Peer Review module).

Private foundations and corporations offer another means of financial support for many scientists. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for example, is a private, non-profit organization that grants as much as $700 million per year, primarily for biomedical research, and about $80 million per year toward science education. You may be more familiar with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by the founder of Microsoft, which awards grants in global health and development projects.

Comprehension Checkpoint
Federal government agencies

The influence of scientific institutions

Together, these scientific institutions – research institutions, professional societies, and funding institutions – form a large part of the community of science. Through them, scientists interact with one another, share ideas, conduct peer reviews, secure funding for research, and obtain access to space and facilities – all of which facilitate the research process and lead to scientific progress.

Each of these institutions also is capable of influencing the direction of scientific progress in its own way. Governments are strongly influenced by political and social motivating factors: Clearly, the United States' participation in World War II led to focused scientific research into harnessing nuclear energy to make weapons. Without the motivating factor of a world war, this research may never have been deemed critical by the government, and the scientific research may never have been pursued. Federal funding agencies continue to set research priorities and solicit grant applications from scientists that address these priorities. Similarly, universities can influence the direction that scientific research takes in their institutions. The institution's administration or faculty choose the research areas in which they hire new faculty – these decisions may come at the behest of a donor or they may reflect a desire to maintain existing strengths or develop new ones.

Professional societies generally have less influence over the direction that research takes, though they are often responsible for promoting particular research areas through publications. In addition, they may release position statements to the government and the public concerning their conclusions regarding how the scientific research their members have conducted affects the general public. For example, the American Geophysical Union's position statement on global climate change begins:

Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth's climate. These effects add to natural influences that have been present over Earth's history. Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century. (AGU, 2003)

Such position statements are meant to emphasize the importance of scientific knowledge to policy decisions, and to be considered legitimate they must fall within the realm of research facilitated by the professional society and be approved by a majority of its members. The development of such statements by institutions within the community of science should emphasize to the general public that issues such as climate change are strongly supported by multiple lines of evidence.

Unfortunately, the influence that institutions have on the process of science is not always positive. Recent stories in the media have loudly decried the possible bias that pharmaceutical companies exert on research at medical institutions; and the tobacco industry's negative impacts on research regarding the health impacts of cigarette smoke is now widely accepted (see our Comparison module).

Space exploration is another controversial area of scientific research. President George W. Bush's announcement in 2005 of his initiative to send humans to Mars and return to the Moon met with criticism from institutions like the American Institute for Physics, whose members note that funding the Space Exploration Initiative has diverted funds from other programs, like maintenance and replacement of satellites that collect data on weather and climate – data that helps communities prepare for severe weather events like hurricanes. While we would like to imagine that scientists are driven purely by their curiosity and interest in research questions, the reality is that the availability of funding can often be one of the driving forces behind research, and these funding priorities change over time.

The biggest influence that all scientific institutions have, however, is on scientific progress. Consider again being a student – while it's not impossible to learn on your own, outside of the academic institution it would be more difficult to find knowledgeable people to help you when you needed it, to determine which books and resources would be most useful, and to work with a group of peers. The same is true for science. While a lot of scientific thinking can go on anywhere, our scientific institutions provide an important mechanism for supporting and communicating that work in order to build our scientific knowledge over time.

Anne E. Egger, Ph.D., Anthony Carpi, Ph.D. “Scientific Institutions and Societies” Visionlearning Vol. POS-2 (4), 2009.


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  • May, R. M. (1997). The scientific wealth of nations. Science, 275(5301), 793-796.
  • Mazuzan, G. T. (1994). The National Science Foundation: A brief history. Retrieved from

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