Science The Endless Frontier
A report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research
By Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research
Governmental reports don’t usually make for dramatic reading, but this document is perhaps an exception. Commissioned by President Roosevelt in November 1944 and completed in July 1945, The Endless Frontier outlines a vision of science in the postwar world that came to shape how research has been conducted ever since.
The report can be described very briefly as three things:
(a) A passionate defense of the need for independently conducted basic scientific research (that is, research not dictated by a government agenda or any other central organizing body and with no immediate applications).
(b) A justification of the role of government in funding basic science, but without exercising control in any way that would jeopardize the independence of such research.
(c) Practical suggestions for the implementation of government support for funding science and educating scientists.
The last point involved both short and long term recommendations for recovery from the war (during which very few scientists were educated, there being very few exemptions from selective service) and improvement of the nation’s research infrastructure. These recommendations would lead to the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 and, in essence, the system of grants we have today. And while it would be naïve to think that political pressures and governmental agendas have never influenced how and what research has been funded, the NSF has continued to support the idea that basic reasearch should be conducted free from central planning, excessive oversight, or the need to provide or demonstrate practical application.
The foresight exhibited in the early drafting of this report is, to my mind, exceptional. The report was commissioned and written while the war was still very much the present reality. True, after D-Day, there was little doubt that the Allies would retake Europe, but it took nearly a year more to get to Berlin, and conclusion of the war in the Pacific was far more uncertain. Yet President Roosevelt and his advisors realized the importance of having plans and policies in place before the war ended. They knew that how the U.S. government acted with regard to science as the country transitioned off a war footing would have huge impacts for science in America and the world for decades.
Moreover, Roosevelt, Vannever Bush, and various committee members were some of the few who were aware of the full scope of wartime science. Of course, the report doesn’t discuss the Manhattan project, as it was still deeply classified. The transmittal of the the report to the President (Truman, by this point), occurred on July 5, 1945, eleven days before the Trinity test and a month before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Vannevar Bush and many of the committee members were certainly thinking about the project when they wrote about the need for openness, decentralization, and international cooperation in postwar science.
Apart from questions of transparency and freedom of information, the Manhattan project raised issues about the structure of the research community. Bush and others knew that once made public, the dramatic success of the atom bomb project would suggest to some that centralized, application driven projects could produce impressive results in other arenas. For this reason, they emphasized that wartime accomplishments had been built on generations of undirected basic research, and that a failure to support such research would eventually result in an empty reservoir of useful knowledge with which to tackle problems of applied science.
It was also clear to the writers that the U.S. would be taking a leading role in science in the postwar world. Between the large number of European scientist refugees working in America, the destruction of the social and physical infrastructure of Europe, and the catastrophic human toll of the war, the center of gravity of cutting edge scientific research had shifted considerably toward the United States (and, perhaps, to Russia). Before the war, research had been funded largely through university endowments or private donations. But as such donations had decreased, the cost of research had increased, and evidence suggested that basic research programs would become impossible without the injection of federal funds.
So the authors set out to construct a clear and reasoned argument justifying, on the basis of national security, a healthy economy, and progress in the development of technology, industry, and medicine, the use of federal funds to support basic research. Their success can be measured in the preeminent position of the United States in research spending and scientific publications, though recent alarming trends suggest that we should not be complacent, and indeed, would benefit from investing even more in basic research.
One last note: the fifty or so members of the committees contributing to this report – scientists, university faculty, industry leaders, and bureaucrats – were all men. Throughout the committee documents, most references are to “trained men,” reflecting the utter lack of women in science (and in nearly all professional careers) at the time. However, in a section devoted to developing scientific talent in American youth, the committee advises that scholarships and fellowships should be awarded “solely on the basis of merit, without regard to sex, race, color, or creed.” Moreover, in the final document transmitted to the President, all references are to “men and women” and “boys and girls.” Vannevar Bush clearly saw that the future of a successful American research community would include both men and women.
The clear-sighted vision of Science The Endless Frontier provides a much needed touchstone for scientists today. In what feels like an increasingly difficult scramble for funding, with increasingly strident voices clamoring for applications and guaranteed results, we need to become adept at defending research at the most basic level. Vannevar Bush’s words can help.