Science, People & Politics,Volume 2, 1.1.07, 01.15 gmt.

The International Geophysical Year of 1957 to 1958

An analysis of why both the executive and legislative branches of the US Government funded the IGY of 1957 to 1958

by Fae Korsmo (fkorsmo@nsf.org)

National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia, USA
This work was commissioned, edited and produced by Helen Gavaghan, and published by GavaghanCommunications. Helen Gavaghan's academic research 2002 - 2004 at the University of Manchester, where she was writing a transfer report from M.Phil. to Ph.D., was into the history of the I.G.Y. In this article Dr Korsmo anayses the political science of the event from the U.S. perspective.

The mobilization of science in the national interest is not a new story. In recent history, the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons has shaped scientific careers, both before and during the Cold War1. Punctuating the Cold War, however, was a momentous cooperative scientific undertaking: the International Geophysical Year of 1957 - 1958. The IGY spanned national boundaries, built international scientific collaborations, and helped to create and popularize a new way of thinking about "Planet Earth" as a dynamic, interconnected system2.

The IGY was huge. Sixty-seven countries and thousands of people participated. Studying the IGY brings to mind the story about the blind men and the elephant. After they had felt different parts of the elephant, the blind men each proclaimed the elephant looked like a tree trunk, a snake, and a fan. There are many versions of the tale, but they all illustrate the dangers of partial knowledge in the absence of a whole story3.

I began to study the origins of the IGY through the eyes of an American social scientist working as a program officer at the U.S. National Science Foundation. The questions that drove me to the archives and oral histories were these:

Why, in the United States, was there nearly unanimous support for the IGY from both the legislative and executive branches of government?

Why did the organizers of the IGY welcome so many different types of science, from glaciology to astronomy (as part of the satellite programme)? Why the large umbrella?

The search for answers sent me back to World War II and prior to World War II. Some historians might argue against paying a lot of attention to focusing events such as the IGY, but focusing events tend to excite curiosity and lead people down new and unexpected paths. The IGY certainly enabled a cohort of graduate students to jump-start their careers in science. For them, the IGY will always be associated with the good old days!

After studying the IGY archive at the U.S. National Academies of Science, delving into various manuscript collections at the U.S. Library of Congress, reading oral history transcripts at the American Institute of Physics, and listening to IGY participants and science historians, I think I see a very small part of the elephant. It is a part confined largely to the United States, and I hope that my musings on what for me is a local scene inspire others to investigate their countries' participation in the IGY.

Origins of the International Geophysical Year

You can look at scientists as interest groups, that is, groups of people with common goals who approach the political arena for specific purposes: monetary support, a decision on a controversial issue, an endorsement of a policy or idea, or a regulatory advantage. They compete with other groups for attention, money, prestige. As scientists, they are highly trained specialists interested in pursuing the truth and making their own decisions about how to do it. So they would like the politicians and other public servants to hand over resources and leave them alone to do their work4.

During World War II, scientists were called on to develop better weapons and more effective technologies to win the war. In the United States, civilian scientists worked with the military services in research and development. After the War, they continued to work together in large groups such as the Joint Research and Development Board. The military services established their own agencies to fund research at institutes, labs, and universities. Best known for supporting "pure" or basic research at universities was the Office of Naval Research, begun in 1946. Four years later, the National Science Foundation, a civilian, independent agency, was created to support basic science and science education5.

Physical properties of earth, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean floor, from the tropics to the poles, were of vital interest to the military during and after the War6. After all, rockets and submarines were now able to penetrate these areas, and scientists also used these military vehicles as tools to reach and study poorly understood regions and phenomena. The atmosphere itself was a mystery, and magnetic storms that disrupted communication and navigation became an issue of both military and civilian importance.

So, was the IGY military or civilian in its inception? The answer is probably both, although the scientists who proposed it stuck to the problems of basic science and avoided any mention of military applications. These scientists would have received military support for their research and would have worked with the military services in institutions such as the Joint Research and Development Board in the US. They were quite aware of the military interests, but they did not see the IGY as an instrument of war. On the contrary, it would be a peaceful interaction among the world's scientists to gain a shared understanding of the environment. As Lloyd V. Berkner, one of the main architects of the IGY, wrote in a 1954 volume of Science, "Tired of war and dissension, men of all nations have turned to 'Mother Earth' for a common effort on which all find it easy to agree."7

Berkner casually proposed a third polar year to Sydney Chapman, a famous geophysicist from Britain visiting the United States, at a dinner party hosted by James and Abigail Van Allen in Silver Spring, Maryland, April 5, 1950. Van Allen later described the gathering as "one of the most felicitous and inspiring" that he had ever experienced. According to Van Allen,

"The dinner conversation ranged widely over geophysics and especially geomagnetism and ionospheric physics. Following dinner, as we were all sipping brandy in the living room, Berkner turned to Chapman and said, 'Sydney, don't you think that it is about time for another international polar year?'" He replied that he had been thinking along the same lines himself.8

In fact, there probably were a number of people thinking along those lines. The month following the dinner party at the Van Allens' house, Chapman, Berkner, Van Allen and another twenty or so geophysicists attended a meeting in California sponsored by the Army Signal Corps in conjunction with a California Institute of Technology study on the upper atmosphere. The attendees consolidated the idea of an international polar year and began to discuss how to make it happen9.

They took the idea to international scientific societies, specifically the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the three scientific unions that comprised ICSU, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Because the science proposed would not be confined to the polar regions, the Third Polar Year became the International Geophysical Year. It would take place in 1957 - 1958, a period of maximum solar activity10.

As Needell points out in his insightful biography of Berkner, Berkner's casually mentioned remark to Chapman came from solid recommendations of joint scientific and military panels looking at what was needed to understand the ionosphere: north-south chains of observing stations. International participation was required to create these world-wide networks11. And, after Stalin's death in 1953, there seemed a chance that the Soviet Union would participate as well.

The IGY Topics

Returning to the notion that scientists form and act as interest groups, the first question is, how did a small dinner party in Silver Spring, Maryland turn into an international scientific movement? The process of persuasion and negotiation took place over several years. Phil Mange, who worked for the international IGY secretariat in Brussels, argues that one of the strengths of the IGY was that it was organized and led by scientists rather than national governments. Each national academy or scientific society that adhered to ICSU took responsibility for raising funds and organizing the research programs for the country within the IGY themes. It was an iterative process by which the academies entertained proposals from their membership and brought suggestions forward to the international IGY bureau, known as CSAGI. Thus the scientific agenda of the IGY expanded from an original interest in the properties of the upper atmosphere to thirteen themes:

Aurora and airglow
Cosmic rays
Ionospheric physics
Longitudes and latitudes
Nuclear radiation
Solar activity
Upper atmosphere studies using rockets and satellites13

Some of the themes emerged directly from the U.S. military's interest in understanding the environment. Glaciologists, for example, focused on the properties of ice and snow, a topic that interested the armed forces operating in the Arctic. But it was the glaciologists themselves who forwarded proposals to be included in the IGY. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences put out the call to individual researchers in addition to professional scientific societies and received a variety of responses. The IGY records archived in Washington show a great willingness among the organizers to include new topics they had not anticipated. The process of inclusion broadened the science agenda and developed a cadre of advocate-practitioners who were encouraged to forward detailed proposals on behalf of their research communities. And, in return, the advocate-practitioners demanded that the resulting data be open, shared, and remain accessible for future generations. This was an important condition for their advocacy and participation.

In return, they agreed to write articles about the IGY in scientific journals and shorter, less technical articles for teachers, students, and the educated public. A full three years prior to the start of the IGY, the people who had agreed to prepare for and administer scientific efforts associated with the IGY wrote about what was known and what remained to be discovered in their fields and how the IGY would afford the opportunity to jump start those discoveries. It created a wave of anticipation, and no one dared oppose a civilian effort aimed toward international cooperation in science. Most of the physical sciences were included, and there was something for everyone. Even ecologists had a crack at understanding glacial environments.14

The large umbrella of the IGY, then, can be explained as a product of coalition building among science-based interest groups. It worked by getting as many scientific societies as possible to sign up for the IGY, as long as their programs fitted roughly the parameters of synoptic and simultaneous observations, thus leading to a synthesis of results in related sciences.

Support for the IGY

Coalition building went hand-in-hand with seeking financial support. The National Academy of Sciences organized the U.S. National Committee for the IGY in early 1953 and later that year hired Hugh Odishaw to coordinate the budget, publicity, internal relations, and other Committee activities. Odishaw had a background in English literature, mathematics, and electrical engineering. He served as an assistant to Alan Astin, director of the National Bureau of Standards and knew how to "sell" science to Congress15. In addition to hiring Odishaw, the Committee sought funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency. Early on, the deal was struck. The IGY would be open, non-classified, civilian research. The National Science Foundation would request and administer the funds, and the National Academy of Sciences would assist with the technical review of research proposals, coordinating the research programs, and interacting with the international IGY committee. Alan Waterman, Director of the National Science Foundation, played a key role in interagency negotiations for the IGY. Before becoming the first director of the NSF in 1950, Waterman served as the first chief scientist of the Office of Naval Research, established in 194616.

Waterman's experience at the Office of Naval Research turned out to be valuable. When he took the helm at the NSF, he already knew his way around the civilian and military circles in Washington. For the IGY he delicately negotiated roles for each service -- the Army, Navy, and Air Force -- in logistics provision as well as in research. All IGY-sponsored research was funded through the National Science Foundation's IGY budget as appropriated by Congress. However, that did not mean that the armed services could not engage in their own focused and classified studies at the same time in the same locations. It made sense. If the services were to provide expensive logistics for basic, open civilian science, they would want answers to questions of operational and strategic importance.

The first grant from the National Science Foundation was for $5,000 to support the U.S. National Committee for the initial IGY planning. In all, Congress appropriated $43.5 million for the IGY. All the support provided by universities, private foundations, and other agencies -- including logistic and operations support -- probably totalled about $500 million17. This was a tremendous and costly effort, especially the satellite program and the Antarctic expeditions. The National Science Foundation's entire budget for non-IGY research and education was $40 million in 1958, considerably larger than the $225,000 it started with in 1951, but still smaller than the IGY appropriation.

Achieving this level of expenditure with hardly a voice raised in opposition brings us closer to understanding why today's surviving IGY scientists and science administrators hearken back to the good old days. The pace was breathtaking, the tasks monumental, and the expectations high, but the resources were available.

How did all this happen?

It helped to have the backing of the Department of Defense for the launching of a satellite. Much has been written as to the motivations of the Eisenhower Administration in making the satellite program a part of the open, civilian IGY18. Was it a cover to develop military reconnaissance satellites to fly over the Soviet Union? If so, who was involved in making the decision? The Army and the Navy already were working on different projects, and the decision to go with the Navy's Vanguard as opposed to the Army's Orbiter project may have had less to do with establishing the principle of overflight than the personal agendas of the individual decision makers19. In any case, the Eisenhower Administration publicly endorsed the satellite program in 1955 as part of the IGY, and this top-level support of an expensive undertaking (the satellite project took up nearly half of the total IGY appropriation) done for peaceful, scientific purposes made it easier to win congressional approval of the IGY as a whole.

The other part of the story, however, is that the National Academy tied the IGY endeavor to science education and the future scientific workforce. Well before the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, business leaders in the United States were calling for improvements in science and math education. It was a matter of national competitiveness. Consider the following quotations:

'Our education system has failed to anticipate and prepare for the steadily increasing need for more scientists and engineers.'

'Our education system has permitted progressive deterioration in the rigor of its mental training and disciplines...'

'Many science teachers are not interested in science, nor are they competent to teach science.'

'The certification requirements for public school teachers pay little attention to competence in the subject matter. Instead, the emphasis is on how to teach'

These quotations come from an article by Arnold O. Beckman, President of Beckman Instruments, Inc., in a 1956 edition of the magazine U.S News and World Report20. Beckman was a chemist who taught at the California Institute of Technology and developed the first commercially successful electronic pH meter21. He started his own company to develop and market instruments. In the 1956 article Beckman cited an alarming report produced by the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, "Engineering and Scientific Manpower in the United States, Western Europe and Soviet Russia." Statistics in the report, he noted, "point up the need for immediate and effective action if we are to provide adequately for our national security and maintain a leading position in the future in scientific discovery and technological innovation."22

Beckman's voice was not the only one calling for improvements in science and math education across the United States. Members of Congress raised the same concerns to the National Academy's IGY Committee. At one congressional hearing on the National Science Foundation's IGY appropriations, Senator Everett Dirksen (Republican, Illinois) said "I could think of nothing better than to keep the science courses in high schools and colleges constantly alerted." His idea was to involve the high schools and colleges in real time during the IGY. He went on to say, "We have gone through the experience of spending countless sums on investigation and research...and then very naively we refuse to appropriate the money to print the bulletins so that it will get into the hands of the farmers."23 The Committee responded by working with publishers, educational organizations, and universities to develop curriculum and teacher training materials. Committee members wrote articles for popular magazines. They also produced a film series on the IGY for use in classrooms and educational television. They made a heroic effort to publish a newsletter, the IGY Bulletin, during the IGY and the summative Annals of the International Geophysical Year after the IGY. They invited the well-known science journalist Walter Sullivan to document IGY research. Sullivan's book, Assault on the Unknown, came out shortly after the IGY, in 1961.

Thus the IGY Committee at the National Academy of Sciences fulfilled their promises to involve the schools, produce and distribute up-to-date information, and collect and archive the data for future use. They told a clear story of what the IGY was going to be, provided updates on what the researchers were doing, and summed up the results. During the IGY about a dozen people worked in the Committee's Office of Information. They answered inquiries, wrote press releases, talked to the researchers, met with representatives from other federal agencies, met with international visitors, worked with members of teachers' associations, managed publication contracts, prepared briefing materials, wrote newsletter copy, and edited film scripts. They kept up their end of the bargain with the elected officials to get the information into the hands of non-scientists.

Of course, there were tensions: tensions between the State Department and the Defense Department, among the military services, between NSF and the National Academy. Despite the inter service rivalries, the clashes of agency officials who sought control over budgets and resources, the military and civilian perspectives on the role of science in foreign policy, the IGY emerged as an amazingly cooperative effort to understand the properties of the earth, atmosphere, and oceans. Researchers coalesced under a single IGY banner to gain the support of both the legislative and executive branches. In turn, they told a clear story of what they were going to do and how they were going to do it.

This essay has explored how the IGY began and developed into a well-supported, large collection of geophysical science projects. It is only a small bit of the elephant, and I encourage readers to consult other, more extensive treatments of the projects and results. The open-ended nature of the science agenda, the impressive number of countries and individuals participating, and the many educational and public relations efforts undertaken have made IGY history accessible, but there is no single way to tell IGY stories.

(1) A classic study is by Stuart Leslie, The Cold War and American Science (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1993).
(2) Walter Sullivan's book on the IGY, Assault on the Unknown (New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill, 1961), is a comprehensive yet detailed description of the IGY written for a general, non-specialist audience.
(3) See Duen Hsi Yen, "The Blind Men and the Elephant," available at ttp://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html>.
(4) Interest groups, or as they are sometimes called, pressure groups, have long been a feature of American politics. See Jack L. Walker, Jr., Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and Social Movements (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991). Of course, the interest group perspective is only one way of examining politics and science. It assumes rational, self-interested individuals. For a historical view of the role of scientists in international relations, see the recent volume of Osiris: Global Power Knowledge: Science and Technology in International Affairs, edited by John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth (2006, 2nd Series, Vol. 21).
(5) Roger L. Geiger, "Science, Universities, and National Defense, 1945-1970," Osiris, 2nd Series, 1992, 7: 28-46; J. Merton England, A Patron for Pure Science: The National Science Foundation's Formative Years, 1945-57 (Washington, DC: The National Science Foundation, 1982); Allan A. Needell, Science, Cold War, and the American State (Washington, DC: Harwood Academic Publishers and the Smithsonian Institution, 2000); Ronald Rainger, "Science at the Crossroads: The Navy, Bikini Atoll, and American Oceanography in the 1940s," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 2000, 30: 349-380.
(6) R. E. Doel, "Constituting the Postwar Earth Sciences: The Military's Influence on the Environmental Sciences in the USA after 1945," Social Studies of Science 2003, 33: 635-666.
(7) L.V. Berkner, "International Scientific Action: The International Geophysical Year, 1957-58,7#34; Science, April 30, 1954, 119: 569-575.
(8) James A. Van Allen, "Genesis of the International Geophysical Year," The Polar Times, Spring-Summer 1998, 2 (11): 5.
(9) Needell, Science, Cold War, and the American State, 299-300; World Meteorological Organization Bulletin, "The Bulletin Interviews Professor Marcel Nicolet," October 1990, 39: 235-246, at 241.
(10) Bulletin, Nicolet interview, 241-242.
(11) Needell, 301.
(12) P. Mange, "The IGY of 1957-58, an Unprecedented Surge in International Scientific Achievement," Paper presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and Science Innovation Exposition, for the session, Continuing Lessons from the IGY Forty Years Later, 17 February 1997 (Photocopy in possession of author). I am grateful to Phil for sharing his perspectives with me. A similar argument -- that one of the reasons for IGY's success was that the scientists, not the governments, organized it -- was made by Harold Bullis, who was an analyst in science and technology at the Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Bullis's report, The Political Legacy of the International Geophysical Year, was written for the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments in November 1973 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973).
(13) The expansion of topics is evident from an examination of the records in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) IGY archive in Washington, DC, particularly in the U.S. National Committee files consisting of correspondence, starting in 1953, and materials and proposals on "Organization," starting in 1952.
(14) The NAS IGY archive, particularly the files of the U.S. National Committee, chronicles the build-up of excitement and activity in the run up to the IGY.
(15) Biographical information on Odishaw was found in the NAS IGY archive, IGY Personnel Series 13, IGY Complex: Odishaw, Hugh, 1954-1972.
(16) Alan T. Waterman collection at the Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, in Washington, DC. I particularly benefited from an examination of his correspondence and diary notes.
(17) Bullis, 15-16. See also Fae L. Korsmo and Michael P. Sfraga, "From Interwar to Cold War: Selling Field Science in the United States, 1920s through 1950s," Earth Sciences History 2003, 22: 55-78, at 75.
(18) For example, Roger D. Launius, John M. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith, eds., Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years since the Soviet Satellite (Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000); Walter A. McDougall, ...The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), chapter 5.
(19) Michael J. Neufeld, "Orbiter, Overflight, and the First Satellite: New Light on the Vanguard Decision," in Launius, Logsdon, and Smith, eds., Reconsidering Sputnik, chapter 8.
(20) Arnold O. Beckman, "A Businessman's View on the 'Failure' of Education", U.S. News and World Report, 30 November 1956, 83-89.
(21) The Chemical Heritage Foundation has a biography of Beckman, available at www.chemheritage.org/classroom/chemach/electrochem/beckman.html.
(22) Beckman, 83.
(23) The quotes from Senator Dirksen and a summary of the hearing are contained in a memo from S. Paul Kramer, on the U.S. National Committee staff, to Hugh Odishaw, dated 6 March 1957 (NAS IGY archive, IGY Office of Information Chronology File, March 1957). Kramer worked briefly for Odishaw in the IGY information office, with his main focus on public relations. See also Fae L. Korsmo, "Shaping Up Planet Earth," Science Communication, December 2004, 26, 2: 162-187.

From 8th January, 2007 Fae Korsmo will be staff associate to the director of the Office of Polar Programmes at the US National Science Foundation. She was previously Staff Associate, Office of the Director, Integrative Activities, National Science Foundation. She was Program Director, Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), between September 2001 and December 2003.

There she managed large, multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research infrastructure projects; communicated NSF priorities and procedures to state, local, and university officials; initiated strategic planning processes among EPSCoR principal investigators; advised university faculty and students in EPSCoR state and territorial jurisdictions.

She was Program Director, Arctic Social Sciences and Science Education Liaison, Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation, between October 1997 and September 2001.

She was a professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Alaska Fairbanks, between 1996-1997.

Education: Federal Executive Institute: Leadership for a Democratic Society, February 2005 Ph.D., University of New Mexico, Political Science, 1992. M.A., George Washington University, International Affairs, 1984. B.A., University of Washington, Comparative Literature, 1980.


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