Rockefeller Foundation: Biomedical and Life Sciences Offshoots

Abstract

Established in 1913 in New York City, United States, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was the most influential philanthropic foundation sponsoring the biomedical and life sciences in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as a key policy maker in steering the course of biological progress as part of a global strategy to promote social stability. The RF also pioneered interdisciplinary activities, most notably the transfer of technologies from the exact sciences to biology, which played a role in the rise of molecular biology. The molecular revolution in biology and medicine, which reached a peak in the 1960s and is still unfolding, can be traced to the technocratic, international and interdisciplinary policies pursued by the RF in its interwar heydays. After Second World War, with the advent of massive governmental support for science, the RF phased out its programs in science and medicine, focusing instead on promoting the ‘Green Revolution’ in Third World agriculture.

Key Concepts:

  • The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) pioneered the international funding of scientific research in the interwar period, when many governments, especially in the United States and France, were not supporting such research.

  • The RF's main motivation was to achieve social stability in the aftermath of First World War carnage, by emphasising the sciences of life (experimental and molecular biology) over the sciences of death (physics and chemistry).

  • The RF's policy was interdisciplinary, revolving around the transfer of physico‐chemical technologies to biology, which often meant the entry of scientists trained in the exact sciences (mathematics, chemistry and physics) into biology.

  • The main instrument of research funding that could have a long‐term impact was the ‘research grant’ given to selected grantees for extended 3‐ to 5‐year periods at a time. It was monitored through site visits by RF officers, their correspondence with grantees and summarised by both grantees and officers for RF's public Annual Reports.

  • Although the RF President and its trustees had the formal authority to make research policy, the officers (Divisions Directors and Associate and Assistant Directors) who implemented that policy had considerable latitude because they had sole responsibility for selecting grantees, communicating with them on a routine basis and above all determining who could get long‐term and large‐scale support. Long‐term Division Directors, such as Alan Gregg (Medical Sciences) and Warren Weaver (Natural Sciences), had impact on bioscience.

  • Bureaucratic constraints within RF such as the balance of power between trustees and officers; the aspirations of the President and his rapport with other Rockefeller philanthropic boards; boundary conflicts between the Natural Sciences and Medical Sciences Divisions as well as the historical context of the Great Depression shaped RF's approach to risk. This meant that institutionally powerful and entrepreneurial grantees were favoured over junior innovators, a trend that eventually distanced RF from the changing biological frontier, but smoothed the rise of ‘big science’ after Second World War.

  • After Second World War, RF began to withdraw its support of science, which attracted by then large‐scale governmental support, focusing instead on agriculture in the Third World.

Keywords: Alan Gregg; Warren Weaver; experimental biology; molecular biology; biotheoretical gathering; William Astbury; Linus Pauling; Dorothy Hodgkin; Max Perutz

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Further Reading

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Gemelli G and MacLeod R (eds) (2003) American Foundations in Europe, Grant‐Giving Policies, Cultural Diplomacy, and Transatlantic Relations, 1920–1980. Brussels: European Interuniversity Press.

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Stapleton DH (2003) Joseph Willits and the Rockefeller's European program in the social sciences. Minerva XLI(2): 101–114.

Tournes L (2001) Mass communication and the foundations: Rockefeller, Ford, and the role of the radio, 1935–1964. In: Gemelli G (ed.) American Foundations and Large‐Scale Research, pp. 129–144. Bologna: CLUEB.

Weindling P (1988) The Rockefeller Foundation and German biomedical sciences, 1920–1940: from educational philanthropy to international science policy. In: Rupke NA (ed.) Science, Politics, and the Public Good, Essays in Honor of Margaret Gowing, pp. 119–140. New York: Macmillan.

Zallen D (1992) The Rockefeller Foundation and spectroscopy research: the programs at Chicago and Utrecht. Journal of the History of Biology 25: 67–85.

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Abir‐Am, Pnina G(Dec 2010) Rockefeller Foundation: Biomedical and Life Sciences Offshoots. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003413.pub2]