Onwards towards the endless frontier

Vannevar Bush’s presidential report is the blueprint of the United States’ scientific enterprise; how closely was this blueprint followed?

Source: DALL∙E via OpenAI
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 this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.
– FDR, Nov 17 1944

In 1944, President Roosevelt wrote a letter to Dr. Vannevar Bush, a distinguished MIT professor serving as the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war. In this letter, the President asked for a report on the following questions. What scientific discoveries from the war could be shared? How can the progress against disease made during the war be continued? How can the government best support research activities? And how can scientific talent be discovered and developed in the US. Bush responded, after President Roosevelt’s death, with a now-famous report entitled “Science – the Endless Frontier.” Given the importance this document had on shaping the US science enterprise over the next 75 years, I invite everyone to read the original document. I hope to provide a brief summary of this report, and then retrospectively analyze where we are in the US science enterprise today.

In brief, Bush lays out how the US government should proceed in cultivating its scientific enterprise after World War II ends. The primary thesis of this report is: new knowledge generation leads to broad improvements to society, and since new knowledge is generated from basic scientific research, the US government should promote basic scientific research. If this thesis is accepted, Bush provides three pillars on which the US government could pursue this goal. First, the US government should provide increased, long-term funding of private and public research and medical institutes (think universities and medical schools). Second, the US government should fund the scientific education of its population to catalyze talent generation. Third, these efforts should be conducted by a centralized organization responsible to the President and to Congress. Thinking about the current state of science in the US, it was striking how federal grants, graduate student fellowships, and the National Science Foundation correlate with Bush’s recommendations.

I am of the opinion that the US scientific enterprise has been a tremendous net positive for the US and world. But there is much room for improvement. Reading through this report, there are some striking differences between what was envisioned, and what played out. Below are some thought-provoking quotes from the report to help identify these differences.

The real ceiling on our productivity of new scientific knowledge and its application in the war against disease, and the development of new products and new industries, is the number of trained scientists available.

Here, the idea is that more scientists will lead to more scientific knowledge generation, which will lead to better societal outcomes. But is there a diminishing returns that Bush did not foresee? “Are ideas getting harder to find?” famously makes the case that while we are increasing our research efforts, our productivity is sharply declining. This discussion is happening more broadly around questions like what does scientific productivity look like? Here, Bush might have oversimplified the problem of generating new scientific knowledge, especially as more and more knowledge is generated. Perhaps new institutional models are required in this new age of science and technology to keep productivity high.

If ability, and not the circumstance of family fortune, determines who shall receive higher education in science, then we shall be assured of constantly improving quality at every level of scientific activity.

A principle that I hope (and think) everyone agrees should be followed. “Family fortune” can be interpreted multiple ways at the intersection of racial, gender, and socioeconomic identity. Here, many data speak to the fact that we are not living up to this principle yet. One should call into question what ‘scientific ability’ means currently, and what it should mean in the future. However, I think the scientific community is taking this principle very seriously, and am optimistic about the future of meritocracy in US scientific enterprises.

[Scientific research institutions] must offer research opportunities and sufficient compensation to enable them to compete with industry and government for the cream of scientific talent.

Many in the scientific community will realize this definitive recommendation has not materialized. A high-profile graduate student strike, a postdoctoral researcher drought, and a wave of professors leaving academia are recent examples attesting to the fact that many in the scientific community do not hold their future prospects in basic scientific research in high regards. There is much written about scientific opportunity and compensation every day on Twitter, Medium, and Substack. I’ll just highlight that Bush identified and warned against this way back in 1945…

It would be folly to set up a program under which research in the natural sciences and medicine was expanded at the cost of the social sciences, humanities, and other studies so essential to national well-being.

And speaking of early warnings, the report specifically highlights, here and in other sections, that the amount of scientific talent generated should correspond with the amount of scientific talent needed. It is no secret that these ‘other studies’ have suffered. A nation faced with increased polarization and deaths of despair, maybe we should have paid more attention to our non-scientific endeavors. I hope it is not too late.

This document played a major role in the past 75 years of US science. Will it continue to? I wonder if, and how, this document is discussed at the NSF and NIH? Are these expired ideas? And for those starting new institutions, like the Arc Institute which is innovating on the typical research model, I wonder how “Science – the Endless Frontier” impacted your founding philosophy. I don’t see this report mentioned often in the public or scientific discourse. I think it should. I hope this helps resurface the ideas, the context, and the message.

Grant Knappe
Ph.D. Candidate in Chemical Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Grant is a doctoral researcher at MIT studying DNA nanotechnology for therapeutic applications.