a bit of history on government funding of science

Terance Kealey, PhD, has claimed that historically governments did not fund scientific research. Dr Kealey is a biochemist, and so can be excused from not knowing his history. Allow me to help.

He said, in a March 3, 2003, Scientific American interview: ”  The British government only started to fund science because of the Great War [World War I].” and  “Until 1940 it was American government policy not to fund science.” Both of those statements are false.

The British goverment, before WWI funded:

  • Shakleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition
  • Royal Society (1850, 1000pound grant-in-aid, increased to 4000 pounds in 1876)
  • The Longitude Act of 1714 – set up a prize by UK parliament.
  • the Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory constructed in 1840

The American Government also funded science before WWII

The USGS -from River Science at the USGS (2007)

  • pg 17 – (1894) “Congress appropriated funds to the USGS for ‘gauging the streams and determining the water supply of the United States’ (U.S. Statues at Large, V. 28, p. 398).
  • pg 67 – G.K. Gilbert (1914 and 1917) “study of the movement and impacts of sediment in river systems draining hydraulically mined sediment areas in the Sierra Nevada (1914, 1917), which, primarily focused on hydraulics, might be called the world’s first environmental impact assessment.”
  • pg 17 – (1933) Tennessee Valley Authority “to build dams to control floods, improve navigation, provide hydroelectric power, and to develop programs for soil erosion control and reforestation for the rural Southeast.”
  • pg 58 – first USGS streamgaging station (1889) on Rio Grande, near Embudo, New Mexico
  • pg 63-64, The Cooperative Water Program (1895) “The three components of the program are data collection, interpretive studies, and national synthesis.”

National Weather Bureau

“The National Weather Bureau Organic Act of 1890 (U.S. Code title 15, section 311) mandates that the National Weather Service is the responsible agent for “***the forecasting of weather, the issue of storm warnings, the display of weather and flood signals for the benefit of agriculture***.” The NWS uses many sources of data when developing its flood forecasts. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is the principal source of data on river depth and flow.”

Other nations/states/governments also supported scientific research:


There is a wonderful book, Science, Medicine, and the State in Germany: the Case of Baden, 1815-1871 by historian Arleen Marcia Tuchman.   Which focuses on the German state of Baden (before Germany was united), and explicitly shows that the funding of science was a priority of the government, which they supported with cash. A few excerpts:

  • Table 5.1 State Expenditure for Science Education  (pg 104) shows that from 1831-1871, every bienium an increase in science education spending, starting 41,240 gulden in 1831/1832, to 415,676 gulden in 1870/1871.
  • pg 167-168,  during the 1850s, “In Baden, the government actively sought professors capable of directing research laboratories where students would be introduced to the methods of exact scientific investigation. Bunsen, Kirchhoff and Helmholtz were all hired for this reason. The government did not, however, limit its support of the experimental sciences to faculty appointments; it also set out immediately to construct research laboratories where these professors would not only conduct their own research but would also teach their students how to apply the exact method of investigation to the study of nature, health, and disease.”

Other German states at the same time (ibid)

  • pg 107-108,  the German state of Saxony in the 1860s constructed new teaching and research labs at U. of Leipzig.
  • pg 174 , “Barvaria, morever, escalated its support, spending one million gulden alone on the Munich polytechnical institute.”  (1850s and 1860s)
  • pg 176…: “unprecedented expansion of scientific and medical institutes in Prussia during the period when Friedrich Althoff headed the Higher Education Section of the Prussian Culture Ministry (1882-1907)….Althoff alone was responsible for the creation at the nine Prussian universities of eighty-six institutes, laboratories, and clinics in the medical sciences, and seventy-seven institutes and seminars in the philosophical faculties, where the natural sciences had their home.” :


  • The Academie des Sciences, “first meeting on Dec 22, 1666…It’s members received pensions from the King as well as financial assistance with their researches.”  (pg 64) A history of science, technology, and philosophy in the 16th & 17th centuries / by A. Wolf (1950)
  • Parmentier, a French pharmacist during The Seven Years War, and a huge fan of the potato was supported by Louis XV (1770) who “gave him a sinecure that let him write and research”.  By Louis XVI, who endorsed an experimental field for potatoes. And by Napoleon, who “financed several projects including factory to process sugar from beets”.   Larry Zuckerman’s The Potato, pgs 82-85.


  • from 1687-1703,  “79 paintings, known as tangkas, which were intended to illustrate a comprehensive four-volume medical treatise called the Blue Beryl…. The paintings were commissioned by the fifth Dalai Lama’s regent, Desi Sangye G tyatso, who stepped in as interim ruler of Tibet…”     pg 76, The Scientist, April 2011.

I could mention…but I only Wikipedia these…

  • Jang Yeong-sil, Korea, circa 1450, scientist selected to serve the king
  • Maragheh Observatory built by Hulag Khan in 1259, Persia
  • the Saint Petersburge Acadamey of Sciences (founded 1724) which support Euler, Goldbach, Bernoulli, and other scientists
  • The King of Spain, founding School of Mines in Mexico (1792), where Andres Manuel de Rio discovered Vanadium in 1801.
  • the National Museum of Brazil (1818)

I am completely in favor of an informed, civil dialouge on the purpose or usefulness of goverment funding of science. However, first, we must acknowledge that this is not trend in started by the United States of America government, but rather a continuing trend of rulers to want to know more about the world.


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