Scientist versus bean counter

In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ramped up its efforts to understand the impacts of radiation on animals and plants. Walter Zinn’s crucial Argonne laboratory inherited a Division of Biology under the leadership of an eminent radiation scientist, Austin Brues, and in late 1949, Brues wrote to his boss in Washington, D.C., defending an imminent move into a brand new lab being built on the brand new Argonne site near Chicago. Brues wrote that his department “was quartered in a brewery and stable near the University of Chicago campus.” What I enjoy about this rejoinder, following attacks from the Bureau of the Budget, is the ease with which Brues equates his work to the future of nuclear power:

By the nature of our first work, the Division has been aware, from the start, of the special needs of the atomic energy development in terms of the knowledge of human hazards and the degree of necessary protection against them. It is a fact that the scientific findings of this group are at present largely responsible for defining “safe” radiation levels in universal use in this country. Those of us who have done the work are the first to recognize that this information, though the best available, is woefully inadequate for the efficient development of newer and more powerful reactors and weapons. It is probably either that millions of dollars are being unnecessarily spent annually, or that human lives are being endangered, due to our present inability to get on with gathering the extensive data we need. . . . I gain the impression that too little attention and interest are paid to these crucial questions, and that biological work under the [AEC] is looked on as a luxury or an invasion into such fields as cancer treatment or cell biology. This is a mistake. The major aims of understanding and treating human atomic damage represent our chief goal, and the engineering job cannot proceed rapidly without this effort, unless under a totalitarian social system or one devoid of regard for human life.

Brues, Austin M. 1949. Brues to Pearson, Dec. 9, 1949. “Reading File, December 9, 1949,” Box 11, Laboratory Director’s Reading File, 1949-1957, RG 326. NARA, Chicago, Illinois.

And of course we all know what it’s like to plead our case when the auditors come calling:

Brues letter