Science’s 75 Year Pursuit of the Endless Frontier
More than 95% of SRAI’s readers grew up in a world that has only known robust, continuous, vibrant funding mechanisms provided by the Federal Government to our scientists and institutions. Seventy-five years ago, research funding was limited, the conduct of research was free-form, and the scientific community and infrastructure of today did not exist.
This July 2020 edition of SRAI Catalyst arrives 75 years after the publication of a report that changed academic research in America forever. We are speaking, of course, about Vannevar Bush’s masterpiece, “Science: The Endless Frontier”, published on July 25, 1945. How did this single document create such massive change?
This article will provide a brief history of Dr. Bush’s rise to the pinnacle of scientific leadership during World War II, his quest to continue America’s scientific progress in a post-war model of Federal funding, the folklore surrounding the creation of a National Research Foundation with a few views of what really happened, and one measure of how much Federal support of research in universities and research institutes has impacted science in America.
Scientific Leadership During World War II
The contributions that scientists made to the conduct, and eventual winning, of World War II are legendary. They have been documented in print and film and are a source of national pride. Planning, organizing, prioritizing, and assessing the performance of 6,000 scientists during this period fell to a small staff in Washington DC – the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), led by Dr. Bush.
Dr. Bush was an accomplished academic, inventor and business executive. After receiving two degrees from Tufts, and earning his doctorate in Engineering from MIT, Dr. Bush launched an ambitious career that saw him: invent and perfect one of the first successful analog computers; hold 49 electronic patents; become a founder or leader of numerous successful technology firms, assume a professorship at MIT, and become president of the Carnegie Foundation all by the time he was 48.
Dr. Bush had witnessed first-hand the lack of coordination between the military and scientists in World War I, a wasteful and inefficient arrangement. After Germany invaded France in May 1940, Dr. Bush approached President Roosevelt with a one-page proposal to create a National Defense Research Committee. Roosevelt approved the plan in 15 minutes.
For the next five years Dr. Bush led a massive applied research enterprise that produced technologies that would assure victory. Under his leadership radar was perfected, weapons were improved, medical advances were brought to the battlefield, and the first really “big science” project – the Manhattan Project developed the atomic bomb.
By the end of the war, at the age of 55, Dr. Bush could have taken immense pride in a lifetime of significant accomplishments and retreated to an academic position to live out his remaining days with complete satisfaction. But he had one last, immense, task to attend to – one that is the most important to us as research administrators.
Continuing Scientific Momentum in Peacetime
The folklore about conceptualizing the idea of continuous Federal funding for basic research is mostly fact-based. To story goes like this:
President Roosevelt was more of an innovator than any previous US President. His creation of programs, legislation, and agencies during the Great Depression were numerous and wide-reaching. His New Deal programs created the Tennessee Valley Authority to build dams, the Works Progress Administration which put people to work on public infrastructure projects, instituted the Social Security Act, and the National Labor Relations Act to supervise Union elections and assure that workers were treated fairly. So it should come as no surprise that as the end of World War II was in sight, Roosevelt wrote a letter to Dr. Bush asking him to develop a plan for continuing the amazing progress spawned by US researchers into the future with a new focus on improving health and welfare and promoting economic development.
Roosevelt’s letter, dated, November 17, 1944, laid out four questions to be answered by Dr. Bush and a blue-ribbon panel of scientific leaders of his choosing.
- “What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
- With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
- What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?
- Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?”
While the end of the war was still more than 9 months away, Dr. Bush pursued the President’s assignment with energy and determination. He quickly embraced the essence of the questions in order to provide the President with useful ideas that could rival the other successful Roosevelt programs from the past 12 years. He appointed committees filled with university and scientific experts, tirelessly held meetings, and consulted with Congressional representatives and military leaders. He labored over what to call his report settling on “Science: The Endless Frontier”.
Sadly, President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 and never saw the report that he had commissioned. Undeterred, Dr. Bush pressed forward with both completing the report and selling its merits.
The 37-page report was finally completed, and printed by the Government Printing Office, on July 25, 1945. In his transmittal letter to President Truman, Dr. Bush emphasized,
“The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”
A New Covenant between the Federal Government and Science
Dr. Bush’s report laid out a bold blueprint for a new covenant between the Federal Government and the scientific community formulating a framework for Federally funded research that endures today. It envisioned one central authority, “The National Research Foundation”, as a new Federal agency dedicated to fostering and supporting science on a scale not previously possible. This organizational structure was not the only novelty proposed by the plan.
The principles outlined in the report included many things that, today, we take for granted, but then were unprecedented. The wisdom of the report is manifested in what Dr. Bush referred to as “five fundamentals” that characterize all the research programs of our modern Federal Budget.
- “The agency to administer such funds should be composed of citizens selected only on the basis of their interest in and capacity to promote the work of the agency. They should be persons of broad interest in and understanding of the peculiarities of scientific research and education.
- The agency should promote research through contracts or grants to organizations outside the Federal Government. It should not operate any laboratories of its own.
- Support of basic research in the public and private colleges, universities, and research institutes must leave the internal control of policy, personnel, and the method and scope of the research to the institutions themselves. This is of the utmost importance.
- While assuring complete independence and freedom for the nature, scope, and methodology of research carried on in the institutions receiving public funds, and while retaining discretion in the allocation of funds among such institutions, the Foundation proposed herein must be responsible to the President and the Congress. Only through such responsibility can we maintain the proper relationship between science and other aspects of a democratic system. The usual controls of audits, reports, budgeting, and the like, should, of course, apply to the administrative and fiscal operations of the Foundation, subject, however, to such adjustments in procedure as are necessary to meet the special requirements of research.”
At its essence, the report proposed that Congress create an agency that would enjoy continuous funding, governed by a Board that was independent from political influence. The report was visionary, not only for the principles it espoused, but also for the practical advice it articulated.
Fact versus Folklore
Folklore tells us that the report was a huge success and scientific research lived happily ever after. The facts tell a slightly more complicated story.
The letter from President Roosevelt to Dr. Bush was actually drafted by Bush himself. Dr. Bush drafted the letter in late October, and working with Oscar Cox, the letter made its way to President Roosevelt through Harry Hopkins – Bush’s best contact in the Whitehouse. After some editing and finessing, the letter was presented to the President on November 17th just days after he had won an historic fourth term in office. Roosevelt agreed with the plan and signed it that day.
Most of the elements that the report proposed were eventually adopted by the Congress. But the Bush vision didn’t materialize completely intact. For example, his plan maintained the current practice of having applied research for defense purposes executed by the military agencies while reserving basic research for defense programs to the jurisdiction of the Foundation, thus assuring civil oversight and priority-setting. That idea didn’t survive the legislative debate process. The Defense programs for both basic and applied research instead grew in size through the creation of such agencies as the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and others.
Another proposed element that failed to survive was the idea of a single agency providing oversight to all branches of research. As the report gained in popularity, competing forces arose to vie for control of research. The Public Health Service had already begun its own extramural research programs dating back decades, and in 1944, The Public Health Service Act was approved by Congress and the National Cancer Institute became part of NIH. NIH has enjoyed budget independence ever since. The Department of Energy took over America’s nuclear programs and created its own scientific infrastructure and research programs. Thus, NIH, Defense, and Energy eventually got their own, independent, research programs.
By today’s standards, the report would have been completely unacceptable by virtue of its exclusion of minorities and women on the various committees. The report incessantly refers to scientists and leaders in the male gender.
It could be easily argued that Dr. Bush and his collaborators had a vested interest in their proposal for a National Research Foundation. Nearly every member of the advisory committees would either personally benefit, or their employers would benefit, from the proposal put forth because virtually all were from the university community which would receive the majority of the funding provided. But despite this conflict of interest, the merits of the proposal were abundant.
How was the Bush report received by President Truman? Not a great deal is known about Truman’s reaction to a report that was requested by Roosevelt, but we do know that he vetoed the legislation when first proposed. Truman’s greatest objection was that the Director of the National Research Foundation would be named by its Board, rather than the President.
The US Congress and Senate debated ways to implement the report for five years, with conflicting visions, and political wrangling that today we assume is the norm. When Congress was finally able to agree on a compromise bill, as noted above, President Truman vetoed it. Dr. Bush tirelessly worked the halls of Congress and the Executive Branch and finally, a version of the legislation passed Congress and was signed by Truman. The National Science Foundation Act of 1950, Public Law 507, or 42 U.S.C. 16, gave birth to Bush’s great plan.
Fast Forward 75 Years
The vision and positive impact of “Science: The Endless Frontier” has been chronicled by many.
Business Week called the report “an epoch-making report” that is “must reading for American Businessmen”.
The Washington Post praised Bush for delivering a “thorough, careful plan for putting the needed push of the federal government behind our scientific progress and yet keeping our science independent of government control.”
I cannot describe the meaning of the report any better than Jonathan R. Cole, former Provost and Dean of Faculties at Columbia University, in his 2016 article “The Triumph of America’s Research University”.
“. . . the implementation after World War II of the most enlightened federal science policy that the world has ever produced—one that used taxpayer money to fund research; that outsourced the work to the great universities on a competitive basis; that linked research and teaching by concentrating the training of advanced students with laboratory work with a leading professor; that produced funding for veterans to return to school and to those who could not afford college without financial aid; and that granted great autonomy to universities in exchange for the production of new discoveries, increased human capital, and more enlightened citizens—then you have some of the conditions that led to the international preeminence of the American research-university system.”
You could write an entire book about Dr. Bush and his report, but do not bother – Bush’s biographer, Professor G. Pascal Zachary of Arizona State University, has done a superb job with his book, “Endless Frontier”. I highly recommend it to you.
One Measure of the Impact
This historical odyssey caused me to wonder, “Has the explosive growth in Federal support for science in America had any impact on the most obvious symbol of scientific accomplishment – Nobel Prizes?” To answer this question, I did my own research.
Using the official Nobel Prize website and focusing only on the “scientific prizes” (chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine), I have charted the number of prize recipients by country (at the time of the award). If you look at the period from 1901 to 1940 (the first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901) the graph looks as follows:
Scientists in Germany, the UK and France initially received the most prizes, but Scientists in the United States were being recognized increasingly with time.
If we now look at the data from 1901 until today, the results are more dramatic.
“Science: The Endless Frontier” represented a paradigm shift in research funding in America – a change that endures today. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Vannevar Bush for his determination in pushing forward an idea that profoundly changed the world. The Internet, mapping the human genome, exploring the universe, personalized medicine, computers and information technologies, efficient batteries and electric vehicles, materials science and advances in chemistry – virtually every technological development of this modern age are the result of basic research.
I think Dr. Bush would be enormously proud of how far we have come since his legacy’s greatest work. And as research administrators we can celebrate the contributions he made to our profession.
Altbach, Philip G. "The Past. Present, and Future of the Research University." Philip G. Altbach and Jamil Salmi, Editors. The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities. World Bank, 2011.
Bush, Vannevar. Science: The Endless Frontier. Report to the President of the United States. Washington, DC: US Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1945. Report.
Cole, Jonathan R. "The Triumph of America's Research University." 20 September 2016. The Atlantic. Article. 26 March 2019.
Mayer, Michael. The Rise and Fall of Vannevar Bush. 7 July 2018. Article. 28 February 2020. <https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/the-rise-and-fall-of-vannevar-bush>.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1986.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. Letter to Vannevar Bush. Washington, DC, 17 November 1944.
Times Higher Education. "World's Most Impactful Research Institutes." 22 October 2016. Document. 22 March 2019.
Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier. Free Press, 1997.
Authored by Cary E. Thomas, MBA/CMA/CRA, Consultant
Cary Thomas Consulting