75 Years After Vannevar Bush’s “Science, The Endless Frontier,” the Government-University Partnership Remains Vital but Needs Recommitment for the 21st Century
In the summer of 1945, Vannevar Bush -- then the head of a wartime agency known as the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development -- sent a report to President Harry Truman. Nearly 75 years later, that report continues to echo in the enduring government-university research partnership it conceived for our country.
Famously titled “Science, the Endless Frontier,” the influential report had been requested the previous year by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Bush served as chief scientific adviser. As World War II increasingly appeared winnable – in no small part due to the scientific research enterprise that Bush’s office led – Roosevelt was looking to the future. He asked the MIT-trained Bush to file a report addressing four questions:
1. “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?”
2. “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?”
3. “What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?”
4. “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?”
Bush took this brief set of questions and delivered an expansive report with recommendations that have informed U.S. science policy ever since. Calling basic scientific research “the pacemaker of technological progress,” Bush recommended a significant and ongoing partnership between the federal government and universities to conduct research to benefit the nation.
Bush’s report noted that government support for basic research could continue to bolster not only the nation’s security, but also its economic prosperity. “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown,” he wrote. “They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!”
Bush’s recommendations led to the creation of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. These agencies conducted and funded the research that sent humans to the Moon, gave us the Internet and smartphones, ended polio and a host of other diseases, and made HIV infection manageable -- more akin to diabetes than a death sentence.
I recently participated in a National Academies of Sciences-sponsored symposium exploring the legacy of this important report and forecasting the future of the government-university partnership. As Vannevar Bush realized 75 years ago, wartime is not the only time for the government to invest in the science that makes us safer and more prosperous. Leading scientists, government officials, and academic researchers at the symposium agreed that – as emerging threats like the COVID-19 virus and the climate crisis make clear – the United States should double down on investments in the government-university research partnership. In fact, in a 2018 article I wrote for Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, I describe in detail how we must continue pressing toward that “Endless Frontier.” Our prosperous and healthy future absolutely depends on vigorously pursuing this journey.