Willis Shapley, A Force In U.S. Science Policy, Dies At 88
Courtesy of Deborah Shapley.
Willis H. Shapley, a former official for NASA and the U.S. Bureau of
the Budget and long-term consultant to AAAS, died in Washington, D.C.,
on 24 October. He was 88.
In 1975, the AAAS Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy
and AAAS Executive Officer William D. Carey called on Shapley to prepare
a report describing the federal budget process as it applies to research
and development (R&D) and analyzing the R&D components of President
Gerald Ford’s proposed fiscal year 1977 budget. In the words of
Carey, with whom Shapley had worked for many years at the Bureau of the
Budget (BOB), the objectives of the report were “to try to make
the budget process comprehensible” to scientists, to provide a “framework
. . . on which to base constructive critiques” of the process, and
to stimulate discussions of R&D in the budget among scientists and
This report subsequently served as the basis for a “Colloquium
on Research and Development in the Federal Budget” in June 1976.
And it became the starting point for the internationally known AAAS
R&D Budget and Policy Program, which celebrated its 30th anniversary
Shapley remained at AAAS for the next 10 years, working with AAAS staff
who subsequently took over the R&D Budget and Policy Program.
“Willis was my mentor in budget analysis at AAAS,” said Al
Teich, director of Science & Policy at AAAS. “His understanding
of the internal working of government, his uncanny ability to ferret out
information from budget and appropriations documents that were designed
to obscure rather than enlighten, and his skill at writing clearly, concisely,
quickly and with precision, were invaluable assets for AAAS. Working with
Willis deepened and enriched my understanding of the policy process and
helped shape my perspective on science and the federal government."
Although he was not widely known outside the federal government, Shapley
played a central role in a number of critical developments shaping federal
science policy. He joined the Bureau of the Budget (the precursor to the
Office of Management and Budget, or OMB) in 1942 and was a principal architect
of the federal government’s R&D budgeting system, as well as
a key participant in designing the National Science Foundation.
Shapley’s 1958 White House memo recommending that the government
embark on a program of space exploration was influential in the formation
of NASA. He served as associate deputy administrator of NASA from 1965
until his retirement in 1975. Shapley returned to his previous job at
NASA after the Challenger disaster in 1986, retiring again in 1988, but
continuing as a consultant until 1992.
The Shapley family had other ties to AAAS. Willis’s father, Harlow
Shapley, a renowned astronomer, was president of AAAS in 1947. His daughter,
Deborah, served as a reporter for Science
from 1971 to 1979.
A memorial gathering will be held at the Cosmos Club in Washington at
2:30 p.m. on Friday 2 December. It will be followed by a reception. Memorial
donations may be made to the Willis Harlow Shapley Fund at Science Service,
1719 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C., 20036.