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The Maxine Singer Papers

The Science Administrator as Advocate

[Maxine Singer in the Carnegie Institution of Washington rotunda]. [1980s].
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Maxine Singer was propelled into science policy making and advocacy in the early 1970s by her association with scientists who were launching the new field of genetic recombination and whose work raised questions about scientific responsibility and public safety that had to be debated and resolved. At the Asilomar conference in 1975, Singer emerged as one of the leaders in developing a framework that allowed this research to continue--with caution--yet provided a mechanism for removing restrictions as knowledge advanced. In the press, before Congress, and in front of public audiences, Singer defended self-regulation of this research by scientists while agreeing to oversight by non-scientists as well.

Singer first became involved in science administration in her role as adviser to the director of the National Institutes of Health on the recombinant DNA guidelines in the mid-1970s. In 1980, after more than twenty years as a bench researcher, she became head of the eighty-member Laboratory of Biochemistry in the National Cancer Institute, a position in which she was responsible for the work of 15 research groups and for the reporting and administrative requirements incumbent upon any federal research agency. Half her time was now spent on bureaucratic matters.

On the strength of her scientific research, her administrative experience, and her engagement in public debates over science, she was named President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1988. One of the oldest and most prominent scientific research organizations in the country, the Carnegie Institution and its six scientific departments, housed in Washington, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and at Stanford University, were engaged in a wide range of research in biology, astronomy, and the earth sciences. Singer reinvigorated the institution's scientific programs. A $50 million capital campaign financed major renovations of Carnegie facilities and Carnegie's share in the Magellan Project, a collaborative venture with several universities to build twin 6.5 meter optical telescopes at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in the Chilean Andes.

Singer presided over the establishment of the institution's first new department in over eighty years when, in 2002, she opened Carnegie's department of global ecology on the campus of Stanford University. In all, during Singer's fourteen-year tenure as president, Carnegie scientists explored such diverse problems as protein regulation of gene expression, the kinetics of tectonic movement of the South American continent, and determining the exact distance from earth of the farthest galaxy measured to date.

Singer enjoyed running a private research institution, in part because it was less burdened with bureaucratic requirements than was NIH. At Carnegie, she joked, "I'm the bureaucracy." She was also inspired by the opportunity to delve into disciplines she had not studied since college, such as geochemistry, geophysics, and astronomy. To understand the needs of Carnegie scientists for facilities, equipment, and administrative support, she had to learn something of the science they were conducting, and she came to see these disparate disciplines as a "continuum of science," all of which shared the study of constant change in nature and the universe. In collaboration with Carnegie astronomer Robert M. Hazen, Singer applied this approach in a book about science and scientific methods for a general audience entitled Why Aren't Black Holes Black? The Unanswered Questions at the Frontiers of Science (1997).

Like many of her colleagues, Singer was troubled by a decline in math and science education and a lack of science literacy among the American public. In 1989, she launched Carnegie's "First Light" project. This free science enrichment program offered third through eighth graders from Washington, DC, public schools the opportunity to perform experiments in a Carnegie laboratory on Saturday mornings. In 1994, she inaugurated the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, six-week summertime institutes and year-round continuing education programs in mathematics and science for public elementary school teachers.

Throughout, Singer was an active participant in public debates about science. As chairman of the National Academies of Sciences' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, she led influential studies of graduate and postgraduate education in the sciences and engineering, of genetic engineering, and in particular of new techniques that offer the possibility of cloning human beings. Shortly before she stepped down as chairman, Singer's committee commissioned a report assessing persistent cultural, professional, and institutional obstacles to the advancement of women in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Upon its publication, Singer wrote an editorial in Science condemning the "unintentional bias harbored by both men and women and outmoded institutional structures" that she believed hindered recruitment and retention of women in science and engineering. Among these she counted presumptions about innate cognitive differences between men and women and employment policies that make it difficult for women to both pursue research and have children. Since the nation's future prosperity depended on boosting the ranks of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, Singer predicted, underrepresentation of women and minorities in these fields would prove costly.

Singer's criticism of scientists extended beyond attitudes toward women. She believed that scientists ignored the public's interest in and concern about modern biology at their own peril, and in 2000 warned against "the scientific community's withdrawal from the kind of intense public education it undertook in the years following the 1975 Asilomar conference." As examples Singer pointed to resistance by consumers to genetically modified crops. She suspected that such resistance stemmed from "antagonism to large agricultural industries," but she also held scientists responsible for failing to communicate the importance of this new technology to the public.

Singer led by example, writing editorials and participating in public forums throughout the 1980s and 1990s to defend scientific freedom and the value of scientific research. In editorials in the Washington Post, she countered attempts by religious groups to introduce creationism into the science curriculum of public schools and to contest the validity of evolutionary science. She vigorously defended friend and colleague David Baltimore against accusations that he had falsified scientific data, charges that led to a congressional investigation but were later dropped. Conversely, when charges of inappropriate conduct and conflicts of interest were levied against scientists who did not report serious adverse events in human gene therapy trials in the late 1990s, Singer took the opportunity to return the issues of social responsibility and professional ethics to the attention both of scientists and of the public, just as she had during earlier debates over recombinant DNA.