In November, 1944, United States President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Office of Scientific Research and Development Director Vannevar Bush and asked four questions:
“First: 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?
“Second: 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?
“Third: What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?
“(And) fourth: 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?”
The reason, noted Roosevelt, was that “new frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged (World War II) we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.”
The result was “Science, the Endless Frontier,” a July, 1945, report generally recognized — in the words of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — as a “prescient report” and “the guiding force for science and innovation in our country for decades (that) led to the development of the modern American research university, the National Science Foundation, and the intellectual architecture for science, engineering, and medical research and higher education in the United States.”
Princeton University Press is commemorating the report’s 75th anniversary by reissuing “Science, the Endless Frontier” along with a substantial essay by physicist and the former Congressman Rush Holt, who represented New Jersey’s 12th District and its 10 Mercer County municipalities from 1999 to 2015.
Reflecting on the original report’s successes and failures as well as recognizing the current tension between scientific research and public acceptance, Holt continues the discussion set fourth during another American era — one also of hope during an uncertain time.
Here is an excerpt from Holt’s essay, “The Science Bargain”:
Is science providing all it should, and are citizens receiving what they need from science?
Bush wrote that scientific progress was essential in the war against disease and could improve public health — yet a thriving scientific enterprise has not prevented millions of people from putting their children at calculable risk by failing to get vaccinations. Nor has the scientific progress been enough to prepare the United Stats to deal with a major virus pandemic in 2020. And it has not resulted in the United States undertaking the corrective measures required to stem costly climate change.
Evidently, our scientific enterprise is failing to give citizens some important things they need. These have not been failures of research — in immunology, virology, epidemiology, oceanography, or atmospheric science. Rather, they have been failures in the relationship between science and the public — something that the Bush report and subsequent debate largely overlooked.
From the modern perspective, in this regard Bush turns out to have been somewhat shortsighted. In the belief that scientific progress ultimately relies on the freedom of scientists to pursue basic research without thought of practical ends, he promoted a system that — while helping research to flourish — has also had the effect of distancing science from the public, and vice versa. His goal was to ensure not only rational, stable funding for scientists, but also the freedom to do their chosen work, unencumbered by societal direction or government planning.
While his competitor Kilgore had proposed an arrangement for all science funded by the government to be “a true servant of the people,” what has resulted can be seen to be more a servant of the scientists — a system to fund work that scientists themselves choose to do.
Indeed, many scientists are convinced that they would lose scientific creativity and effectiveness if they focused where the public might ask, rather than where their trained curiosity and established research avenues take them.
In my career as a research scientist and as a policymaker serving in Congress for 16 years I have observed that scientists fiercely guard their prerogative to choose the research agenda. Though they will make some allowances in order to secure funds, they generally believe that the fruits of their independent investigations will accrue best to the public without explicit public guidance. Research grants, usually awarded through scientific review, tend to be concentrated along elite, established patterns. The scientific community, as they have sought to avoid constraints that might come from government planning, have asserted independence in a way that results in the public regarding science as beyond their ability to judge or control, or sometimes even to understand — much less participate in.
Bush called for access to higher education and scientific training to be established through a scholarship program with the goal of “encouraging and enabling a larger number of young men and women of ability to take up science as a career.” This idea of select, trained researchers as the embodiment of science is reflected in the current practice of science and science education, as well as in public attitudes toward science. Researchers and their funders typically see their job as exclusively to do research. Even now most programs in science education still focus primarily on identifying and training future professional scientists and engineers, commonly called “filling the pipeline.” When legislators speak of our science teaching, they commonly allude to Americans’ comparative disadvantage to rivals in the number of scientists and engineers.
The result is that the public sees science not as a comprehensible approach toward understanding research available to them, but rather as what researchers do in their inaccessible labs. They see scientists as people who have mastered complicated ideas and instruments unfathomable to nonscientists. Products, cures, and other material benefits may emerge from research, after several unseen steps and the receiving public has little understanding of how they came about. They see little place for themselves in science, and although they welcome practical products that emerge from the scientific enterprise, they see little place for science and scientific thinking in their lives. This presents a problem when many of the world’s most urgent challenges, for example, pandemic or climate change, desperately require the public to engage with science and also to build an understanding and trust of scientists and scientific work. If members of the public think science is not intended for them, they turn away. They may not ask for verification of information given to them.
At the root of the issue is a limited view, traceable in part to Bush’s report, of what science is and how it contributes to society. In “Science, the Endless Frontier,” Bush identified science with research and development, and its benefit to society with its more or less tangible outputs: technologies, medicine, products.
But there is more to science than research, with its specialization and sometimes esoteric techniques, and the tangible outputs are only part of what the public should obtain from the science bargain and only part of what they should think of when they think of science. In its essence science is a way of asking questions that leads to the most reliable knowledge about how things are. This is it most essential contribution.
“Science, the Endless Frontier” by Vannevar Bush with a companion essay by Rush D. Holt, $12.95, 200 pages, Princeton University Press.