In Retrospect: Science — The Endless Frontier

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Vannevar Bush's pivotal report that marked the beginning of modern science policy catapulted the phrase 'basic research' into popular usage, explains Roger Pielke Jr.

Science — The Endless Frontier. A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research

National Science Foundation: 1960 (reprint). First published 1945.

The US government's landmark report Science — The Endless Frontier was published 65 years ago last month. Commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and prepared by electrical engineer Vannevar Bush, who directed US government research during the Second World War, the document distilled the lessons of wartime into proposals for subsequent federal support of science. Although its bold recommendations were only partly implemented, the document is ripe for reappraisal today: it marked the beginning of modern science policy.

Bush's report called for a centralized approach to government-sponsored science, largely shielded from political accountability. The creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950, a small agency with a limited mandate, was far from the sweeping reform set out in the 30-page report and its appendices. However, its publication ushered in a new era in which science was viewed as vital for progress towards national goals in health, defence and the economy. Government funding for research and development consequently increased by more than a factor of ten from the 1940s to the 1960s.

The influence of Science —The Endless Frontier stems largely from its timing, coming at the tail end of a war in which science-based technology had been crucial. The development of the atomic bomb, radar and penicillin meant that Bush's declaration that “scientific progress is essential” to public welfare found a receptive audience. Bush also adopted innovative language that capitalized on this new-found government credulity.

Engineer Vannevar Bush's proposals led to the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950. Credit: H. WALKER/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY

In particular, he broadened the meaning of the phrase 'basic research'. In using it to refer simultaneously to the demands of policy-makers for practical innovation and to the interests of scientists in curiosity-driven enquiry, he satisfied both sectors.

Before the report, pleas by scientists to expand government support for research had met with only limited success. Prominent calls along similar lines were made to no avail in 1924 by the UK National Union of Scientific Workers (NUSW) and in 1929 by US agriculture secretary Arthur Hyde. The poor response might have been due to the confused messages offered to protect the integrity of pure research. In a 1921 essay, for example, the NUSW president declared that scientific research has “no industrial bearing at all” but later stated that it is “the foundation of progress in industry”. Not surprisingly, most policy-makers shrugged.

Some political leaders did champion government support for basic research before 1945. Prior to Hyde's appointment, US agriculture secretary Henry C. Wallace had argued in the early 1920s (one of the first narrow uses of the phrase) that the agency should fund more “basic research” to enhance agricultural productivity. At the time, Wallace's call for investment was counter-intuitive because US agriculture was suffering from being too efficient; a surfeit of production depressed prices and caused hardship for farmers. But he reasoned presciently that consumption would catch up in the longer term. Wallace did not live to see his vision realized, but his son, Henry A. Wallace, picked up the baton, first as agriculture secretary under Roosevelt (1933–40) and then as Roosevelt's vice-president (1941–45). During the war, the younger Wallace served as liaison between Roosevelt and Bush.

Bush was selected by his friend and neighbour Vice-President Wallace to draft Science — The Endless Frontier. As director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush had credibility and good connections within both the science and policy camps. This meant that when the report was released — less than two weeks before the Hiroshima atomic bomb was detonated — it was well positioned to influence. When Wallace's political fortunes fell, leadership in science policy completed its switch from the agriculturists to the physicists, and the language of science policy changed too.

With its inherent inscrutability, Bush's 'basic' research descriptor helped to secure a pragmatic compromise between scientists and politicians. The concepts of 'pure' and 'fundamental' research had long presented a narrow view of science in terms of benefits only to scientists. By contrast, basic research could be carried out for curiosity's sake — satisfying scientists — and could meet national needs, pleasing the politicians. Bush later recalled how the phrase made it easy to convey that “work that had been regarded by many as interesting but hardly of real impact on a practical existence, had been basic to the production of a bomb that had ended a war.”

The publication of Science — The Endless Frontier entrenched the concept of government patronage of scientific research in policy discourse. The setting up of the National Science Foundation and countless other policy reports cemented it. “Institutions and statistics are what gave stability to the fuzzy concept of basic research,” wrote science-policy scholar Benoît Godin in 2000. The speed with which science and society discussions were reframed is demonstrated by usage of the phrase in The New York Times, which rose rapidly from 4 mentions in 1944 to a peak of 159 mentions in 1957 (see 'Usage of the phrase “basic research”').

The fluid meaning of “basic research” galvanized science-policy discussions in the mid-twentieth century. Credit: SOURCE: R. PIELKE JR

In recent decades, science policy has shifted its focus towards conferring measurable benefits to society. The fuzzy concept of basic research no longer seems to fit — nebulous descriptions of benefit are insufficient in today's competitive environment for public funds. Consequently, use of the phrase has declined since the early 1990s, as indicated by mentions in Science and Nature (see 'Usage of the phrase “basic research”'). Other terms, such as 'transformative research', have sprung up to fill the gap; even 'fundamental research' has made an ironic return. And science policy itself has been renamed by scholars of science studies: as collaborative assurance, socially robust science, use-inspired basic research and other monikers that have meanings largely known only to that community.

Words alone cannot bridge the gap between the different interests of scientists and politicians in pursuing research: governments demand relevance; scientists desire freedom. The so-far futile search for a language that is relevant today both reflects and reinforces the unsettled nature of science policy. In the six decades since Science — The Endless Frontier was written, research and policy have been transformed. Our framework for discussing both needs to catch up.

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Pielke, R. In Retrospect: Science — The Endless Frontier. Nature 466, 922–923 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/466922a

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