The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974

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Overview

The national laboratories--Livermore, Berkeley, Los Alamos, Argonne, Oak Ridge, and Brookhaven--have occupied a central place in the landscape of American science for more than fifty years. Responsible for the development of nuclear weapons, reactors, and other technologies that shaped American policy and culture in the Cold War, scientists from these labs also pursued physical and biomedical research that fundamentally changed our understanding of nature. But all of this has come at great cost, in terms of finance, facilities, and manpower, and has forced major adjustments in the framework of American science.

Deeply researched and lucidly written, The National Labs is the first book to trace the confluence of diverse interests that created and sustained this extensive enterprise. Peter J. Westwick takes us from the origins of the labs in the Manhattan Project to their role in building the hydrogen bomb, nuclear power reactors, and high-energy accelerators, to their subsequent entry into such fields as computers, meteorology, space science, molecular biology, environmental science, and alternative energy sources. By showing us that the national laboratory system developed as a reflection of American ideals of competition and decentralization in the Cold War, Westwick also demonstrates how scientific institutions reflect the values of their surrounding political system and culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of American History

The National Labs is a fine addition to this extensive and sophisticated literature. It works best as a synthesis of previous arguments about the role of the weapons labs in recent American history and as a vehicle for understanding the relationship between American science and the modern federal establishment. Peter J. Westwick coins a new term, systemicity, as a unifying theme in this study, in the process emphasizing his contention that these facilities may only be understood as a diverse collection unified by a common goal and head but with significant centrifugal tendencies…The National Labs makes an important contribution to knowledge about the evolution of this set of research institutions between 1947, when the AEC began operation, and 1974, when the DOE took over responsibility for overseeing them…Westwick's synthesis is a valuable entrée into how these scientific institutions both altered and reflected the values of the United States during the Cold War.
— Roger D. Launius

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

The present book is a useful contribution to the ever growing literature on 'Big Science'. Based on extensive archival research at the U.S. National Archives and the individual national laboratories of the United States (Argonne, Brookhaven, Berkeley, Livermore, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge), the author sets out the early history of the national laboratory system in the United States describing the major programs and missions and the administrative choices and disputes in the period running from 1972-1962…In an effort to keep a lid on this diversity, the author maintains a steady eye on the overall structure of the system while covering individual programs such as the aforementioned highly bureaucratic reactor and particle accelerator programs in considerable detail.
— Peter Keating

John L. Heilbron
As parts of a centrally controlled research effort directed largely to national security, the national laboratories run by the Atomic Energy Commission might have seemed more appropriate to the Soviet Union than to the United States. Peter Westwick resolves the paradox by treating the labs as linked elements in a typically American competitive-cooperative system. He uses the same concept to explain the labs' increasing diversification and their apparent redundancy. Westwick's lively analysis of the national labs as a system is a significant contribution to U.S. history and a model for the historian of modern scientific institutions.
Daniel Kevles
Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley, Livermore--all were laboratories to conjure with in the heyday of the Cold War. Westwick's book is the first to treat them together, as elements in the integrated national laboratory system that sprang up in the aftermath of World War II. He masterfully addresses their relationships to the larger Cold War culture and to each other. Deeply researched and clearly written, his book provides a rare close-up of the interplay of science, defense, and bureaucratic interest during a crucial period in the national labs' history.
John Krige
A rich institutional history of the Atomic Energy Commission's laboratory system. It shows scientists and government officials working together creatively to produce the knowledge, skills, and technologies required by the national security state.
Spencer Weart
The system of national laboratories is the main American contribution to the transformation of science in the twentieth century. The labs were a major force in developments from radar to reactors, from computers to quarks. It is high time for a study of the system as a whole. Westwick's book, thoroughly researched and intelligently argued, will surely become the standard work on the subject, valuable to everyone who wants to understand how our scientific community took on its present shape.
Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky
The book is an almost encyclopedic review of the history and function of the national laboratories and therefore will be a very useful reference to the many scientists and historians interested in the subject.
Journal of American History - Roger D. Launius
The National Labs is a fine addition to this extensive and sophisticated literature. It works best as a synthesis of previous arguments about the role of the weapons labs in recent American history and as a vehicle for understanding the relationship between American science and the modern federal establishment. Peter J. Westwick coins a new term, systemicity, as a unifying theme in this study, in the process emphasizing his contention that these facilities may only be understood as a diverse collection unified by a common goal and head but with significant centrifugal tendencies…The National Labs makes an important contribution to knowledge about the evolution of this set of research institutions between 1947, when the AEC began operation, and 1974, when the DOE took over responsibility for overseeing them…Westwick's synthesis is a valuable entrée into how these scientific institutions both altered and reflected the values of the United States during the Cold War.
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences - Peter Keating
The present book is a useful contribution to the ever growing literature on 'Big Science'. Based on extensive archival research at the U.S. National Archives and the individual national laboratories of the United States (Argonne, Brookhaven, Berkeley, Livermore, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge), the author sets out the early history of the national laboratory system in the United States describing the major programs and missions and the administrative choices and disputes in the period running from 1972-1962…In an effort to keep a lid on this diversity, the author maintains a steady eye on the overall structure of the system while covering individual programs such as the aforementioned highly bureaucratic reactor and particle accelerator programs in considerable detail.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674009486
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter J. Westwick is a Senior Research Fellow in Humanities at the California Institute of Technology.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
    • Why Study the Labs?
    • What Were the Labs?
    • The Approach


  • I. The Framework
    • 1. Origins
      • Manhattan Project
      • Postwar Plans
      • Postwar Realities


    • 2. Individuality
      • Contractors
      • Laboratory Organization
      • Manpower


    • 3. Interdependence
      • Security
      • Organization of the AEC
      • The Path of Proposals
      • The Lab Directors’ Club




  • II. The Environment
    • 4. Cold War Winter, 1947–1954
      • Drivers
      • Big Equipment
      • Small Science


    • 5. False Spring, 1954–1962
      • Nationalism and Internationalism
      • Boundary Disputes




  • III. Consequences
    • 6. Adaptive Strategies
      • Specialization
      • Diversification


    • 7. Exemplary Additions
      • Biomedicine, 1947–1954
      • Solid-State and Materials Science, 1954–1962




  • IV. Epilogue and Conclusion
    • 8. Epilogue, 1962–1974
      • The Framework
      • The Environment
      • The Response


    • 9. Conclusion: Strategy and Structure
      • The Actors
      • The System: A New Species
      • National Labs and National Goals




  • Appendix 1. Laboratory Operating Budgets, 1948–1966
  • Appendix 2. Laboratory Operating Budgets, 1973
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Index

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