By Rachel Lance
Science lives or dies based on funding. These words are no surprise to any principal investigator or lab leader who has ever lain awake at night wondering if their most recent grant proposal was deemed glamorous enough to pay their lab members’ salaries. Which, quite frankly, is probably all of them. But what is less immediately obvious is the degree to which, through funding, science is also dependent on the fickle social and political events around us. Science and history, though usually taught as separate subjects, tightly drive each other, linked by the inexorable force that is money.
Projects that promise to quickly solve a publicly visible problem for a member of Congress get loads of cash; others that may be simply interesting or provide a foundation for future work can struggle. The juggernaut federal funding agencies have budgets based on politics and the American tax base, connecting each year’s scientific progress to elections, the economy, and unemployment.
Some kind of link always seemed vaguely apparent to me as an injury biomechanist, but it took me a long time to realize the full extent. Investigations of trauma from car accidents have received a steady and predictable stream of money, while the topics of blast trauma and blast-induced traumatic brain injury were subject to a massive influx only once soldiers started coming home as victims. However, the degree to which history is tied to science never truly struck me until I engaged in a historical medical project of my own, an experimental investigation of the explosion set by the Civil War submarine HL Hunley, which I recently turned into the book In the Waves. As I studied the events surrounding the trauma patterns from the epic 1864 blast, I realized that the militaries’ needs during the Civil War drove scientific advancements in munitions, crop production, and management of mosquito-borne disease that continue to shape America permanently, long after the war ended.
World War I provides perhaps the starkest evidence of the linkage. It was Marie Curie’s determination to help excavate bullets from wounded warriors with minimal damage that led to her development of the mobile X-ray machine. She said that prior to the war she thought her discoveries had limited practical application, but once the war started the world was suddenly willing to fund them, and for her work “the material and personnel were multiplied as if by enchantment.” The need to equip troops with practical, robust equipment and uniforms that required minimal care led to the invention of stainless steel and zippers, which have simplified every aspect of life including experimental setups. WWI even changed fashion, as the trench coat was invented to keep soldiers dry in the mud-lined trenches that became the hallmark of combat.
The rapid transport of troops during the war created an unprecedented mixing of humanity that allowed the Spanish Flu to engulf the globe like wildfire because the flu spreads only as fast as humans carry it. Political choices drove the world into a pandemic as the virus, whose first cases came from Kansas, exploded across the Atlantic when America sent her troops and their germs overseas. Immediately, the outbreak led to advances in epidemiology and our understanding of mechanisms of infection. Typhus inoculations were produced with zero regard for expense. Then, decades later during the early rumblings of World War II, fear of a second troop-induced outbreak sparked a feverish desire for a vaccine. A bolus of new laboratory funding dispersed by the concerned US Army led to the discovery that fertilized chicken eggs held the secret to viral immunity for the troops, and for all of us.
World War I also drove stunning advances in engineering technology, all the products of funding, and therefore advancement of the mathematical theories in their respective fields. During the War, the first airplanes proved their utility in combat, even though they were almost comically limited in function compared to modern machines. However, because of the obvious advantage the technology could provide, over the next 23 years investments in aerospace engineering moved the tech from slow, sputtering, open-cockpit biplane designs to legitimate fighter jets. That progress is unbelievably fast—for comparison, in the last 23 years our major engineering thrust has been in computer technology, but we’ve only managed to move from Palm Pilots to iPhones.
The same thing occurred with submarines. The Civil War’s Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, but her entire crew died and she disappeared after the Pyrrhic victory. The second victory by a sub wasn’t until fifty years later during WWI when Germany’s invisible wolfpacks dominated the Atlantic and forever changed the face of warfare. During the 1920s and ‘30s, America invested heavily in the technology as a response, and now nuclear submarines form a key part of most modern navies.
During the COVID19 pandemic, the advances in epidemiology are already evident, as groups collaborate internationally to thrust medical understanding forward as quickly as possible in order to save lives. New protocols, a new understanding of public health measures, and even new models for publishing academic results have resulted in a global scientific endeavor unprecedented in the history of the field.
The irony, in the case of WWI, is that most Americans feel its impact on a daily basis, yet don’t even know why the war started. In a way, we can thank Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin for modern air travel—air traffic control was an invention of WWI—as well as flu vaccines, zippers, portable X-rays, wristwatches, Kleenex, stainless steel, blood banks, and trench coats. Nearly every aspect of our modern lives has been sculpted by the efforts of historical scientists and engineers, and in turn, their funding and project goals were driven by the lives of the humanity around them. Ours are too.
Rachel Lance, PhD, is a biomedical engineer who specializes in patterns of injury and trauma, and she is especially fascinated by blast and ballistic events. She works as an Assistant Consulting Professor at Duke University, where she conducts research at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology. She is the author of In the Waves: My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine, about the submarine HL Hunley and her experiments to figure out what killed the crew. Follow Rachel on Twitter.