Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was a founder of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Superintendent of the United States Coastal Survey, and one of the foremost organizers of both American science and education in the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, he also had some ideas on how scientists should organize and communicate.
In 1842 Bache stated that, “voluntary associations for the improvement of agriculture, manufactures, and the arts, exist all over our country, not supported, it is true, by our great sovereign the people, but by a few, who are either immediately or remotely interested or who desire to advance the weal of their country. If the eyes of this most august sovereign might but be opened to the importance of fostering these institutions!” Bache was expressing a need to organize science more broadly in the U.S. Over the course of the next fifty years Bache and like-minded scientists created the origins of a system of professional scientific organizations, university research departments, national academies, and scientific publications that could all be considered components of the current scholarly communication system. One might ask, however, what the motives of Bache and his fellow scientists were? Why did they create the scientific ecosystem in the way that they did? Perhaps most importantly, how might the early debates of these scientists help in current debates about the need for change in scholarly communication? Around ten years later, during his term as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Bache further elaborated on his motives for organizing science, “While Science is without organization, it is without power: powerless against its enemies, open or secret; powerless in the hands of false or injudicious friends.”
In other words, the reasons for scientists to organize and communicate is so that the American “sovereign” (i.e. the American people) will support scientific institutions. Furthermore the reason for such scientific institutions is to achieve “power” against the enemies of science. At a time when it seems that science’s power is diminishing, it is worth asking whether Bache and his supporters achieved their dreams, and more importantly how scientific organizations and their communication methods achieved the authority they currently enjoy. Perhaps a better understanding of the history American scientific system’s institutional and communication practices can help to shape the debates about changing its future in the digital age.