Bridging Scientific Divides, As Early as the 1800s
Academy Librarian Nathaniel Lord Britton, in CoCo Ray, Puerto Rico. Britton participated in the Academy's Puerto Rico Survey, founded the Science Alliance in New York, went on to found the New York Botanical Garden, and made major contributions to science in the area of Caribbean flora.
We often hear talk about scientific silos—the high walls of discipline-specific knowledge—and the benefits of tearing them down. But did you know the Academy helped jump-start the conversation about bringing together diverse disciplines more than a century ago?
At the end of the 1800s, science was flourishing in New York City. Amateurs and specialists alike met in clubs and societies devoted to botany, geology and other scientific pursuits. But most of these groups were small, they generally didn’t communicate much with each other, and they all struggled for financial support.
In 1891, leaders of the New York Academy of Sciences proposed a solution: a federation called the Science Alliance. This umbrella organization would publish a directory of the Members of all affiliated societies, issue a bulletin announcing meetings and public lectures, and act as a clearinghouse for the press on scientific activities in the city. Member groups could also save money by pooling the costs of printing and postage.
The idea had been brewing since 1887, when the Academy hosted the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This six-day event attracted thousands of attendees and put a spotlight on New York City as a hub of science. The meeting’s success cemented the Academy’s authority to convene scientific groups and institutions. Afterward, small scientific clubs struggling for security approached the Academy about arranging affiliations.
Nathaniel Lord Britton, the Academy’s librarian, had a bigger plan. In his view, uniting the city’s small specialist societies, but still retaining their individual identities, would make science more visible in New York City and attract new Members for all. In 1891, the first groups came together to form the Scientific Alliance. In addition to the Academy, Member organizations included the New York Mineralogical Club, the Linnaean Society, the Torrey Botanical Club, the New York Microscopical Society, and the New York Mathematical Society. The New York section of the American Chemical Society and entomological societies from New York and Brooklyn joined soon after.
Britton was no stranger to the process of bringing people from across disciplines together, and he was not short on energy either. By age 31, he was already one of the most influential scientists in New York City, and in the midst of organizing the Scientific Alliance, he was also launching the New York Botanical Garden and teaching geology and botany at Columbia University. It didn’t hurt that he was also well connected to many of the city’s leading philanthropists at a time when cultural institutions like museums and concert halls proliferated.
Britton’s vision for the Scientific Alliance was not just to bring these groups together, but also to build a cultural center to house them—a building where Member organizations could hold meetings and public lectures, and consult a consolidated science library. Despite appeals to private donors and city authorities, this piece of his plan was never realized.
Unfortunately, when ambitions for a building and library failed, the Scientific Alliance faltered as well. In 1907, the Academy merged with the Alliance, with Member organizations eventually becoming “Sections” of the Academy, some of which carry on to this day.
While Britton’s idea wasn’t quite realized as he initially hoped, the legacy of the Scientific Alliance remains strong at the Academy. We remain dedicated to bringing together extraordinary specialists from across the spectrum of science and from around the world, and are committed to looking beyond the silos of each discipline. In our experience, hosting conferences across topics and often at the cutting edge of new fields, we know well that some of the best ideas and the most important solutions to society’s challenges arise when scientists work across boundaries.
Simon Baatz, “Consolidation and Cooperation,” in Knowledge, Culture, and Science in the Metropolis: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1817-1970, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 584, pp. 139-176