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75 years after Vannevar Bush’s impactful report, debate continues about directing science

Science— The Endless Frontier

Vannevar Bush
United States Government Printing Office
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Since its publication in 1945, Vannevar Bush’s Science—The Endless Frontier has elicited considerable examination and criticism. More often than not, contemporary discussions emphasize the report’s shortcomings rather than its successes, using it as a foil for remarking on everything from the complexity of the innovation process to the immense growth of the American science and technology (S&T) enterprise over the past 75 years. Nevertheless, it persists.

What explains, then, the endurance of a document whose prescriptions offer questionable insight into a science and engineering base that has evolved far beyond what existed in 1945? The answer lies in the fact that it was an attempt to solve a policy debate that is still ongoing: What is the best way to organize and oversee scientific research in pursuit of innovation?

State-directed science: Wartime origins
Concerned about American S&T capabilities as World War II loomed on the horizon, the U.S. government created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) on 27 June 1940. Staffed by prominent U.S. scientists and headed by the engineer Vannevar Bush, the NDRC supplemented ongoing military research and development efforts by enlisting civilian scientists and industrial research laboratories.

A year after its creation, the committee was encompassed by the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which Bush was also tapped to lead. The OSRD expanded the NDRC’s mandate to include medical research as well as new weapons development and testing capabilities, coordinating research that led to the production of penicillin, the tactical use of radar, and the development of the atomic bomb (1). Pleased with the OSRD’s success, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Bush to propose a plan for continuing the wartime science effort into peacetime. Bush responded with Science—The Endless Frontier.

Top-down or bottom-up? Directing science in times of peace
In the report, Bush did not advocate for the continuation of OSRD. Rather, he called for the creation of a new organization—a national research foundation—that would primarily support fundamental research. In peacetime, he argued, the federal government needed to foster the acquisition of knowledge about the Universe from which future applications could be drawn (2).

Although few questioned that the federal government had an important role to play in supporting scientific research after WWII, not everyone agreed on how that support should be organized. Bush’s plan described an organization that would encourage scientific advancement by awarding grants to scientists (primarily at universities) who would work on problems of their own choosing—a detail that elicited considerable criticism.

On 22 July 1945, just three days after the White House released Bush’s report to the public, the New York Times ran an article penned by Waldemar Kaempffert, the paper’s science editor (3). Long on praise for the OSRD, Kaempffert was skeptical of the engineer’s vision for postwar science. The success of OSRD, he argued, was due to the efficiency of its mode of operation. The office had sought out the best researchers and laboratories and organized, planned, and directed their research toward specific goals. “This procedure, which it has been frequently asserted produced brilliant results, is to be abandoned for a kind of laissez-faire system,” Kaempffert explained. Although he urged Congress to give appropriate attention to Bush’s plan, he concluded that “America needs something more like the OSRD, something more efficient than a body of higher-ups who wait for ideas to be submitted.”

Kaempffert’s article sparked a debate. James B. Conant—noted U.S. chemist, president of Harvard, and former NDRC member—responded in a letter published in the New York Times on 13 August (4). A veteran of the wartime science effort, Conant explained that OSRD’s objective had not been to advance science generally but rather to create and improve weapons of war. The advancement of science in the postwar period, he argued, necessitated a different approach. Conant backed Bush’s vision for a national research foundation, concluding, “There is only one proved method of assisting the advancement of pure science—that of picking men of genius, backing them heavily and leaving them to direct themselves.”

The debate moves to Congress and gets personal
The dispute that unfolded in the pages of the New York Times spilled over into the halls of Congress. While the disagreement was multi­faceted, the issue of how much control such an agency should have over research priorities formed a key point of contrast between the dueling legislative proposals.

Bush was not the only individual with a vision for postwar American science. In fact, Science—The Endless Frontier was crafted, at least in part, to counter one particular vision with which he heartily disagreed: that of Harley Kilgore, a Democratic senator from West Virginia. While serving on the Military Affairs Committee, Kilgore had become convinced of the importance of scientific research to American national defense. He called for an organization that would support applied, as well as basic, research to ensure military preparedness after the war. But Bush felt Kilgore’s view of what science and technology could offer society was exceedingly narrow. In contrast, Bush described science’s primary aim as “increas[ing] the knowledge and the understanding of man…[and] extending his grasp of the environment in which he lives” (5).

Bush’s vision for an agency devoted primarily to supporting undirected, fundamental science research won out, and the National Science Foundation (NSF)—established by President Harry Truman on 10 May 1950—cohered around the central principle that scientists themselves should determine the course of fundamental research. As a result, NSF adopted a decentralized organizational structure that would ensure that the scientific community at large exerted considerable influence over which projects and lines of research would receive federal support. But the creation of the NSF did not end the debate.

Pressure to direct research persists
The fledgling agency immediately faced pressure from the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor to the present-day Office of Management and Budget, to play a stronger role in directing research and establishing research priorities. Alan Waterman, the agency’s first and longest-serving director, firmly resisted.

The debate reached a crescendo in 1968, when the agency’s first congressional review culminated in an amendment to its founding charter that officially authorized the NSF to assume responsibility for supporting applied research. The mandate pushed the agency in new directions, which have served as vital sources of strength for the American S&T ecosystem, including lending greater support to engineering research and the creation of cross-disciplinary initiatives aimed at answering big questions facing science and society.

As Science—The Endless Frontier inspires reflection in its 75th year of existence,
policy-makers continue to debate the proper role of the federal government in supporting fundamental research amid a shifting social, political, and economic landscape—as evidenced by the recent legislative proposals in the House and Senate that call for substantial organizational changes to the NSF. With a nod to Bush’s report, the Endless Frontier Act represents the latest contribution to this debate. As long as science itself continues to evolve, however, such policy prescriptions will need constant refinement, and Bush’s text will continue to feature as an important touchstone in those deliberations.

References and Notes
1. L. Owens, Bus. Hist. Rev. 68, 515 (1994).
2. V. Bush, Science—The Endless Frontier: A Report
to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific
Research (U.S. Office of Scientific Research
and Development, 1945).
3. W. Kaempffert, New York Times, 22 July 1945, p. 71.
4. J. Conant, New York Times, 13 August 1945, p. 18.
5. M. Lomask, A Minor Miracle: An Informal History of the National Science Foundation (National Science Foundation, 1976), p. 40.

About the author

The reviewer is a science policy analyst at the National Science Foundation, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA.