The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974

by Peter J. Westwick

Reviewed August 30, 2004

Book CoverHistorian Peter J. Westwick explores the inner workings of the USA's unique national labs system in his book, "The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974." This topic was the focus of his research while he was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He traces the evolution of the labs from their origins as the developers of nuclear weapons, reactors, and other technologies of destruction to diversification into physical, biomedical, and other types of research. This lab system had a profound impact on the organization and substance of science in the United States during roughly the quarter century after World War II.

The nonlinear telling of history is sometimes difficult to follow because of the large cast of characters and program names. However, the book provides a well-documented, thorough analysis of the early years of the national labs and of the era of "Big Science." Westwick provides insight in the approach to funding scientific research at the labs. He shows that funding was often more of a political and marketing decision rather than one based on science and high-minded ideals.

Great science and engineering have taken place at the national laboratories in the past 55 years. Undoubtedly, better management of the system could have provided a better return on investment. This work is a fine addition to any collection of those who seek to understand the echoes of the Manhattan Project in today's scientific landscape.