An Institute of Thought & Action

In the early 1970s, the National Science Foundation ran a short-lived grant called “Research Applied to National Needs” (RANN). It was designed to fit somewhere between funding “pure science” research and more “applied” projects, and sought to foster science for the public good. Distinguishing between “pure” and “applied” science deserves some unpackaging another time, particularly in the context of this funding scheme. Barry Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems applied for funding from RANN, which piqued my curiosity. I remember thinking that it was a most aptly named research program for Commoner’s vein of work that tied together scientific research, public communication, and social justice. Talking with him about RANN a few years ago, though, Commoner saw the grant—a Nixon administration goal foisted upon the NSF—as a ridiculous mission. “All research is applied to national needs,” he told me. Which made sense and I fully accepted his position. Nevertheless, from someone who devoted himself to engaging in participatory democracy, there seemed to be some level of discontinuity—shouldn’t we be trying

I bring this up in part because a history of RANN deserves some attention, and especially the social context in which it was conceived. Yesterday, Dr. Tina Loo (UBC) was at McMaster giving a talk about forced relocation efforts in post-World War II Canada. These initiatives—she drew on case studies from Keewatin, Fogo Island, Gaspé, Africville in Halifax, and Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood—were grounded in the culture of the “Just Society” and a “will to improve.” It seems to me that RANN might be conceived of as a corollary of similar schemes to generate a better world. These kinds of programs and the state seeing itself as an agent in this kind of venture are long gone, though Loo made a point of stressing in her conclusion that hope was a central feature of these projects and the idea that the state could make life better for its citizens (and that was a part of its responsibility). Shades of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the cynic might note (and one might note how revisionist American foreign policy, à la William Appleman Williams, might stress how Americans sought to improve the world in their image on a global scale during much of the twentieth century.

But I also bring this up in reference to Ralph Nader’s obituary of Barry Commoner’s life, which concluded with a call for donations to create an Institute of Thought and Action in Commoner’s name. Nader wrote:

His students, supporters and some wealthy benefactors in this nation should extend his broad-gauged approach (“the finely-sculptured fit between life and its surroundings”) by establishing an Institute of Thought and Action in his name.

Which seems both fitting and timely. But also what we should be doing already, in the absence of such an institute, no? There’s a longer post and thought process here that deserves investigation into the historical decline of the public intellectual—and related to this the state’s role in fostering public intellectualism (related vaguely to RANN and similar initiatives). But: science, improvement, social justice, hope. Looking backward, where did this relationship go? And what did it yield?

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