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

Naomi Oreskes. Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 738 pages. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-73238-1

Reviewed by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Published on H-War (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58331

Naomi Oreskes’s objective for Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean is explicit in the subtitle. More broadly, she tackles what she rightly identifies as a “serious question: what difference does it make who pays for science?” (p. 1). She examines these questions through the example of American oceanography, including marine geology and geophysics, which underwent massive growth in the wake of World War II thanks to patronage from the US Navy. Her conclusion that it does matter that the navy was footing the bill is perhaps unsurprising, but her unpacking of why it matters is more nuanced. Oreskes argues that patronage—who pays the bills—matters not only because funding guides researchers toward the patron’s topics of interest, but also because it can steer researchers away from inquiries that are not of interest.

This is not a case of a patron’s thumb on the scales, as in the examples she and Erik M. Conway previously elaborated in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010). On the contrary, navy funding allowed Cold War oceanographers freedom to direct their own research because the navy needed accurate answers about the ocean environment but was neutral as to what those answers were. However, between the topical constraints around what the navy needed to know, the “psychic motivation” scientists received from the importance assigned to their knowledge and results, and their shared embrace of their patron’s patriotic values and fears, navy funding still shaped the resulting knowledge—and ignorance—of the oceans (p. 499).

While both navy and oceanographers made some effort to cooperate before World War II, the fundamental transformation of the battlefield from a largely two-dimensional to a three-dimensional space during that war meant the navy needed to understand the ocean depths in new and urgent ways. They needed to map deep ocean terrain so that submarines could safely navigate underwater. They also wanted to understand the fundamental properties of seawater in order to predict and harness their effects on the transmission of sound underwater for sonar, navigation, and communications. Because these seem like a search for fundamental truths rather than the development of weapons systems, oceanographers often tell the story of the Cold War growth of their field as a golden age. Fundamental truths about nature were in fact unveiled thanks to open contracts through which the navy essentially gave the major oceanographic institutions blank checks to investigate anything they found interesting, the story goes, though they sometimes had to “paint their projects blue” to give them a veneer of interest to the navy (p. 13).

According to Oreskes, this mythology misses a lot. While the period—and the funding model—did result in tremendous growth in our fundamental understanding of the sea, the navy only ever supported investigations that fit its “mission profile” (p. 296) Oceanographers, many of whom had served during the war and thus had strong ties to both the navy as an institution and to particular naval leaders, were enamored by the sense that their expertise was needed and that they were contributing to the important cause of national defense and the struggle against communism. But if their interests lay outside the “mission profile,” the navy was uninterested. This funding environment, then, resulted in a particular vision of the ocean “as a medium through which sound and submarines might travel” rather than “as an abode of life” (p. 497). To go back to the book’s subtitle, then, navy funding shaped what we do know—geophysics—but also what we don’t know—largely biology, which with few exceptions was of little interest to the navy.

Oreskes lays out her argument over the course of nine chapters, throughout which we not only see the effects of naval funding, but also that plenty of people worried about those effects at the time, as chapters 1 and 3 demonstrate. Chapter 1 recounts how biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) resisted efforts to engage navy funding in the late 1930s due to “concerns over the twin threats of secrecy and state control,” but their resistance melted when war broke out (p. 28). This new support meant tremendous growth for the institution, such that postwar, they could not just return to the status quo antebellum, because “without Navy support, there would be little to go back to” (p. 52). By the late 1950s to early 1960s, though, as we see in chapter 3, some oceanographers were still concerned about how navy influence had grown, as shown by the 1961 “Palace Revolt” that took place at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) when a newly appointed director embraced a vision of the institution that seemed to full embrace “integration of their sciences into the Cold War leviathan” (p. 133). The WHOI board backed the director and his vision, and the revolting scientists left.

The book is not a wholesale condemnation of military funding. Oreskes demonstrates that it could both stimulate and stymie scientific discovery. Sometimes the concentration on issues relevant to navy concerns led not just to large-scale data collection but even to theoretical breakthroughs, as shown in chapter 2, where Oreskes considers how Henry Stommel’s focus on the navy’s need to understand the thermocline led to his development, with Arnold Arons, of the Stommel-Arons Model of abyssal circulation. In this case, an approach that focused on the navy’s operational concerns led directly to a theoretical breakthrough.

On the other hand, the military instinct toward broad classification of data made collaboration difficult and could impede the development of new ideas, even for those on the inside. Specifically, Oreskes argues in chapters 4 and 5, “Navy secrecy stood in the way of the emergence of modern global tectonic theory” (p. 142). Scientists needed clearance to access both ships and maps of the seafloor. Those with such clearance could not share data or consult the expertise of colleagues in fields like geology, who generally did not receive clearances because their land-based focus was of no interest to the navy.

Chapters 6 and 7 consider the famous deep-submergence vessel Alvin. Oreskes stands on its head the story of the mini sub as a tool for “basic” science that researchers successfully “painted blue” by convincing the navy to fund it. In fact, researchers were not terribly interested in a vessel like Alvin, and the WHOI director had trouble drumming up proposals for its use. The navy, on the other hand, wanted Alvin for tending underwater hydrophone arrays intended to listen for Soviet submarines; looking for objects like the hydrogen bomb lost in the Mediterranean off Palomares, Spain, in 1966; and investigating submarine accidents, such as the loss of USS Scorpion in 1968. By the late 1960s, the navy was ready to move on from Alvin; only the sub’s transfer to the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System in 1974 kept the program alive and available for its 1977 discovery of hydrothermal events. Telling this as a story of painting basic science blue, Oreskes writes, ignores that these “discoveries were the end product of a two-decade-long interaction” with navy concerns (p. 339).

Chapters 8 and 9 demonstrate some of the aftermath oceanographers faced as military funding waned by the 1970s. In chapter 8, we see how marine geologist Charles Hollister of WHOI tried to keep his seafloor studies alive by cultivating new patrons in the form of the Sandia National Laboratory and the Department of Energy (DOE). Hollister went so far as to set up a lobbying organization to convince Sandia, the DOE, Congress, and the public that the abyssal ocean provided the best storage site for nuclear waste. Neither international law nor biological concerns, nor even “substantial technical evidence” was sufficient to change his mind (p. 391). In chapter 9, as the navy’s need to understand the ocean was satiated, oceanographers seeking another “big new question” that would require (and reward) their expertise developed a plan to measure anthropogenic climate change (p. 395). SIO pitched a plan to measure rising ocean temperatures with sound, again ignoring national and state law, biological concerns, and the fact that other fields had already shown evidence that the change was occurring. In both of these cases, Oreskes explains in her conclusion, oceanographers who had come of age with navy patronage were used to feeling that their work was important and contributed to events with global import, but they had never had to interact with the public, nor even with colleagues who did not have security clearances. This left them unprepared for public scrutiny, but also “cast them in a certain light” as secretive and militaristic (p. 484). Even when researchers’ projects were not navy-backed, people assumed there was a link and wondered what the scientists were really up to.

Taken as a whole, Science on a Mission thoughtfully considers how funding matters, not by condemning military funding, but by demonstrating that such funding shaped which problems scientists approached, through which methods, and with which tools. Oreskes also suggests some threads unpulled because of lack of navy interest: the geologists and biologists not consulted; the fisheries science neglected; the climate science leadership that oceanographers could have, but did not, assume. Neglect of each of these cases continues to have a significant impact on our world today. While Oreskes has engaged with speculative history elsewhere, that is not her major point here.[1] Instead, this book is a case study, asking questions around one particular field and one particular patron, as a way of thinking through that larger question: What difference does it make who pays for science? Her answers will provide useful food for thought for those who direct and receive scientific funding, as well as for all of us who study them.


[1]. Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

Citation: Penelope K. Hardy. Review of Oreskes, Naomi, Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58331

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