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The Rockefeller Foundation: Bridging disciplines to launch a new field in biology

The Rockefeller Foundation’s molecular biology initiative

Funders have been engaging with networks long before today’s connective technologies made it easier to maintain relationships at a distance. In the 1930s, a program officer at The Rockefeller Foundation named Warren Weaver led an initiative to apply the tools of physics and chemistry to the many unanswered questions of biology. This story sketch describes how Weaver’s intensive relationship-building among researchers and targeted use of funding was successful in launching the new field of molecular biology.


The potential for starting a new network often comes from seeing opportunities in the adjacent possible—combining insights from different areas of exploration and fields. The Rockefeller Foundation was able to tap into the adjacent fields of physics and chemistry to support the evolution of the new field of molecular biology. By the early 1930s, the Foundation had spent over a decade building infrastructure in both physics and chemistry, through grants to universities and research institutes and by supporting fellowship programs. In 1932, shortly after establishing a new Division of Natural Sciences, the Foundation brought in a mathematician named Warren Weaver as a program officer. Weaver was keenly aware of the Foundation’s earlier work in the physical sciences, and the significant technological advances that had propelled progress in that arena. He believed the Foundation could promote similar advances in biology. He advocated to begin an initiative on the topic, which he first called vital essences and then experimental biology, asking: “Why do we seem to know so much more about atoms than we do about men?” He believed that a new hybrid science that took advantage of the latest tools could challenge what was then a widespread belief: that the mechanisms of life were simply beyond the scope of scientific analysis.



Weaver’s proposal to begin this initiative was accepted in 1933, and from the beginning he approached the work as an exercise in intensive relationship-building and information-sharing, work that today is termed network weaving. (His name and the term are a happy coincidence.)

Working with a team of three full-time program officers, Weaver set about the task of identifying researchers in physics and chemistry whose work had the potential for advancing biology and persuading them that it was in biology that they could break the most new ground. In this way, he focused on understanding the key players throughout the landscape of disparate fields and brought them to the proverbial “table” in order to see possibilities in shared action. The nature of the problem he was trying to solve was that the three fields were pursued in almost entirely separate academic silos, so while there were some researchers in physics and chemistry who were doing interdisciplinary work in biology, there were very few and they were not connected through any existing groups. He had to convince potential candidates, person by person, that there was incredible potential for applying the technologies developed for working at microscopic scale in physics and chemistry to unlock the mysteries of how biological systems work. Beyond the strength of his convictions, the only resources that he and his team could draw on was the institutional credibility that the Foundation had built through its support of physics and chemistry, and the relationships with the American and European scientific communities that it had gained through that work.

Weaver knew he had to build momentum from the bottom up among the scientists who were in a position to do this work. Working with only telephones and telegraphs, before the advent of airplanes and high-speed rail, he and his team spent its first three years building personal relationships with scientists across America and 17 European countries. This was a significant undertaking of bridging divides and sparking coordination. His team made a total of 531 in-person visits in that time to see scientists at 312 laboratories and give targeted grants to support specific projects. Those visits not only built ties with the scientists but also gave him and his team the opportunity to fill notebook after notebook with ideas and observations, drawing connections across disparate research to track progress at the level of the field. This combination of granular knowledge and a field-level view gave Weaver the ability to accelerate each scientist’s work both by providing new insights and by providing funding where it was needed most.



The benefit of having a clear goal at the start of building a network—in this case, establishing a new scientific field that could become self-sustaining—is that it enables clear decision-making about when your engagement can end. Although the details of how he went about his network-weaving remain buried in his many papers that now reside at the Rockefeller Archive Center, what we do know is that By the 1950s, the rapid pace of progress had attracted significant funding from both government and industry, at which point Weaver himself advocated for the Foundation to wind down its support. The initiative finally closed after 18 years in 1951.

Weaver’s deep involvement in forming this community of researchers set the stage for molecular biology to become a central focus of the scientific establishment in the late twentieth century, paving the way for further foundational breakthroughs including the structure of DNA, genetic engineering, and the mapping of the human genome.



In the section What network design would be most useful? we introduce a simple framework for comparing the ‘design’ of a network — eight basic variables that define its shape and size. See below for our estimation of the design of the molecular biology initiative’s network (in teal) versus that of the other networks we profile (in white):

10 Rockefelelr Warren-01-01


Sources: This is an adaptation of the history of Molecular Biology as described on the Rockefeller centennial site. Additional details are drawn from the biography of Warren Weaver on the Rockefeller centennial site, an unpublished internal presentation on The Rockefeller Foundation’s history of involvement in networks from September 2014, and an interview in October 2014 with Jack Meyers, Pat Rosenfield, and Barbara Shubinsky from the Rockefeller Archive Center.