In Bottom-Line Culture, the Sciences Was Tops

With nonprofit institutions now thoroughly at the mercy of

corporate types, it’s hard to get excited about the latest crimes against the

life of the mind. Still, consider what’s happening over at the New York Academy

of Sciences on East 63rd Street.

President and chief executive Rodney W. Nichols, a former vice president of Rockefeller

University, has been trying to turn

an agreeably messy and democratic membership organization into one of those

hierarchical lean machines so admired by the slash-and-cash crowd.

And despite what Rod Nichols’ detractors characterize as the

ineptitude and instability of his nine-year reign, Mr. Nichols may yet succeed.

Earlier this year, the academy put its greatest physical

asset on the market: the five-story neo-Renaissance palazzo donated in 1950 by

a Woolworth heir. More recently, with Mr. Nichols leading the chorus, the

academy’s board of governors junked its greatest intellectual asset, The Sciences magazine.

Why close down a brilliant publication, winner of seven

National Magazine Awards for general excellence, essays and criticism? Why kill

a magazine that has only gotten better-and less costly-since the academy

launched it in 1961?

Obviously, because The

Sciences didn’t embrace Mr. Nichols’ confused agenda for the academy,

and-above all-because it didn’t make money.

After the academy abruptly shut down The Sciences in June, Bill Green, chairman of the board of

governors and the former Republican Congressman from the Silk Stocking

district, invoked the corporate culture’s first article of faith: Anything that

cannot make a profit deserves to die. “Excellent though it may have been, [ The Sciences ] … was a tremendous drain,”

ran his statement to the press.

The six Sciences

editors were ordered out of their charmless offices at 655

Madison Avenue, and pronto. Locks were installed

on the doors (lest there be looting or robbing of pharmaceutical journals?).

Mr. Nichols offered severance pay in exchange for silence. The academy hoped

that would be the end of it.

But the magazine Mr. Nichols shot to kill doesn’t wish to

die. Its supporters have put up a Web site, SaveTheSciences.com, and are urging

the academy’s international membership and other readers to register a protest

at the site.

Naturally, The

Sciences ‘ impressive roster of contributing editors-Stephen Jay Gould,

Laurence Marschall, Rosamond Purcell, Robert Sapolsky and Hans Christian von

Baeyer-oppose the academy’s decision. But the chief signatories to the Web site

also include Richard Stolley, editorial director of Time Inc. magazines; Dennis

Flanagan, retired editor of Scientific

American ; Frances Farrell, publisher of The

Sporting News ; and Dr. Nicholas Charney, co-founder of Psychology Today . Along with a dozen others, these people had

served, pro bono, at the academy’s request, on a committee to improve the

magazine’s finances. Not one believed the only recourse was shutting it down.

As the committee often reminded chief executive Nichols,

plenty more people might have read The

Sciences had they known it existed. (The academy made no effort to

advertise that anyone could subscribe for $20, not just members who paid their

$95.) And if annual membership dues were viewed as income generated by the

magazine- The Sciences having been the

chief benefit of joining-then even the current low membership of 30,000 would

generate about $3 million in revenues. With that sum, you’d still be able to

put out The Sciences , with plenty

left over for canapés in the Florentine Room.

In the magazine business, The Sciences is what’s known as a “thought leader.” The term refers

to any magazine worth reading: Harper’s ,

The New Republic , The Atlantic , The American Scholar, Commentary and the like. With rare exceptions,

these magazines don’t make a dime. They are supported by foundations or rich

people or both. Typically, their sphere of influence extends in inverse

relation to their circulation figures.

The Sciences had

such influence. In a world of test-marketed publications, it remained a miracle

of good taste: heavy yet seamless editing, restrained page design and inspired

art direction (using fine-art reproductions to illustrate articles, which began

as a way to save money on photos, became its signature).

The “gulf of incomprehension” between literary intellectuals

and the scientific elite, addressed nearly a half-century ago by C.P. Snow in

“The Two Cultures,” was never better bridged than by The Sciences . It brought artists, writers and scientists into its

drawing room to entertain and edify one another. It evolved into something

superior to a magazine; it became a living force.

An academy spokesman explained, “Rod Nichols loved The Sciences . It was just a business

decision.”

Of course: just business. Said the

neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, an occasional contributor, with

characteristic eloquence. “So many good things are killed or degraded

supposedly because they can’t be afforded, whereas what really can’t be

afforded is the loss of quality.”

Terry Golway will

return to this space next week.