Private Scholarly Institutes to Guide Government

  • Prosperity
  • 1919

In its early years, Andrew Carnegie’s main foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, had a Republican board that was anxious to improve the quality of American governance without increasing the size of government. Toward this end, the Corporation began to make grants creating independent advisory groups that aimed to elevate the quality of information available to government officials. Beginning in 1919, Carnegie and allied funders set up a whole series of private research institutes and scientific councils that, as historian Ellen Lagemann puts it, “would be accessible to the federal government but not controlled by it.” The aim was to encourage an “associative state,” where experts supported by private philanthropy could improve the policymaking process and help solve national problems while preserving America’s traditionally limited sphere of government action.

Carnegie and Rockefeller funds led this effort by establishing the National Research Council during World War I. Drawing from numerous scientists, the Council brought the government many military advances, including nascent sonar systems for detecting submarines, intelligence tests used to classify army recruits, and range finders for airplanes. In 1919 the Carnegie Corporation donated $5 million to make the National Research Council a permanent adviser to government, under the wing of a revived National Academy of Sciences. A headquarters building and a permanent endowment were created with the Carnegie money.

Many other donors followed this with similar efforts to capitalize private think tanks and advisory organizations that could refine government policies and performance. Thanks to philanthropic money from Ford, Russell Sage, Rockefeller, Eastman, Rosenwald, and many others, independent organizations like the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies began to appear to improve governance via better information.

  • Ellen Lagemann, The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 1992)