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Military funding encouraged researchers to think of the ocean as a theater of war rather than a dynamic ecosystem

Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean

Naomi Oreskes
University of Chicago Press
744 pp.
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What do Cold War military funding, the golden years of postwar oceanography, the appalling state of our oceans today, and agnotology—the study of the cultural production of ignorance—have to do with each other? Plenty, as historian of science Naomi Oreskes makes clear in her impressive and authoritative new book, Science on a Mission.

Over the past two decades, Oreskes has helped transform how scholars understand the history of scientific and political debates over continental drift and anthropogenic climate change. Her latest work weaves together insights from these and other intellectual spheres to deliver a crucial message: Patronage of knowledge production—that is, who pays for science—matters deeply.

Scientific work at sea is expensive, and military financial and logistical support has enabled researchers to elucidate long-standing mysteries of the deep such as abyssal circulation, plate tectonics, and sea floor hydrothermal vents. Yet Oreskes shows that Cold War navy bureaus paid to solve specific problems, especially concerning submarine warfare. By the middle of the 20th century, navy operational needs shaped the agendas of three major US marine research centers—the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the Lamont Geological Observatory—with considerable consequences.

Not all US oceanographers accepted the strings attached to navy largesse. Debates erupted even before the Cold War at Scripps and again in the early 1960s at WHOI over the costs of having to work on classified operational projects. However, trustee budgetary priorities eclipsed faculty concerns about autonomy and military control of “big science” at sea.

Oreskes uses fascinating historical episodes to reveal serious, underappreciated consequences of oceanographers’ prolonged reliance on secret, mission-driven navy projects. Two chapters examine the complex history of the famous Alvin submersible, which, contrary to subsequent whitewashing, did not start out as a research vessel. Another chapter tells the disturbing story of a prominent WHOI sedimentologist who spent most of the 1980s and 1990s trying to convince the US government to bury nuclear waste in the deep sea, despite his earlier codiscovery that the seafloor lacks seismic stability.

The narrative culminates in the 1990s, when Scripps oceanographers pivoted toward climate change research. Blind to their own arrogance and obliviousness about the impact of underwater sound on marine mammals, the scientists provoked public distrust by casting themselves as climate heroes while dismissing concerns about the threats posed to whales by acoustic tomography, which the researchers sought to use to investigate ocean temperatures.

Epistemic effects of “military defense oceanography” continue to ripple outward today. Internalizing the navy’s view of the ocean as a theater of submarine warfare, rather than as a dynamic ecological system, led Scripps, WHOI, and Lamont leaders to brush off ocean biology and ecology. By the time comprehensive marine biological inventories finally started, around the turn of the millennium, it was, Oreskes laments, “much too late” to determine baseline conditions owing to massive changes caused by overfishing and other anthropogenic activities.

Historians of biology and marine environments will likely have other examples of how decision-makers “constructed substantial ignorance about the ocean as an abode of life.” From my own research, I would add that biologists of the late 1960s worked very hard yet failed to convince the US Office of Naval Research and allied agencies to fund studies of how a proposed Central American sea level canal might facilitate disastrous exchanges of invasive species (1).

We need more historical scholarship on how powerful entities produce ignorance as well as knowledge, and Oreskes provides a model for doing so. As an intellectual and institutional history of postwar oceanography, Science on a Mission will interest historians and practitioners of the marine sciences, historians of Cold War science, and scholars of epistemology, and it deserves a wide readership. Moreover, as an exposé of how navy-sponsored oceanographers wound up constraining their own research agendas and believing their own myths, the book should give pause to all scientists who consider themselves immune to the potential influence of their funders, or who romanticize the golden age of military scientific patronage.

References and Notes:
1. C. Keiner, Deep Cut: Science, Power, and the Unbuilt Interoceanic Canal (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2020).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY 14623, USA.