Updated Feb 29, 2020 - Science

The next frontier for Big Science

Illustration of binoculars with beaker in its lenses

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In 1945, engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush laid out a framework for support of science in the U.S. that drove prosperity and American dominance. That model isn't enough anymore, experts said at an event this week in Washington, D.C.

The big picture: With China threatening to overtake the U.S. in R&D spending even as research becomes more international, science must manage the tension between cooperation and competition.

Background: As President Franklin Roosevelt's scientific advisor during WWII, Bush was known as the "General of the Physicists," organizing the massive scientific contribution to the war effort, including the Manhattan Project.

  • The wartime accomplishments were astounding: advances in food production and medicine, the development of radar and proximity fuses on bombs, and ultimately, the atomic bomb.

In July 1945, two weeks before Hiroshima, Bush authored a report titled "Science, the Endless Frontier," arguing that significant and centralized government funding of basic scientific research was vital for America's economic well-being and security.

  • Bush's report led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1950, the chief federal agency for basic scientific research.
  • In 1940, the U.S. government and private industry spent the modern-day equivalent of $5.6 billion on scientific research. Today the U.S. as a whole spends $549 billion on R&D.

Yes, but: For years, the American proportion of total global R&D spending has been declining.

  • In a Jan. 29 congressional hearing, National Science Board chair Diane Souvaine testified that "in 2019 China may have surpassed the U.S. in total R&D expenditures.”
  • “There are a lot better teams in our league for the next 75 years than there have been for the past 75 years in science and research,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) at the National Academy of Sciences event on February 26 celebrating the 75th anniversary of Bush's report.
  • On the same day of the event, China's biotech giant BGI Group claimed it could sequence a human genome for just $100 — cheaper than any American company.

Reality check: While China has stolen a march in some fields, like 5G and some fields of machine learning, according to Souviane's testimony Washington still spent nearly $70 billion more than Beijing on basic research in 2017.

What they're saying: Beyond increased international competition, the changing nature of the U.S. demands shifts in how basic science is done and what it should accomplish. The country is more diverse than it was at the end of World War II, life expectancy is now lower than other industrialized nations, and there are massive health disparities.

  • "Most exciting scientific advancements are creating moral quandaries that worry citizens partially because they know they will bear any burdens and partially because they feel they have no voice over the direction of science and tech even in a democracy," said Shobita Parthasarathy, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
  • Parthasarathy says the country's political polarization has spilled over into science. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts can't just be about building up the scientific enterprise, but must allow it to be "more representative and ultimately more politically legitimate," she said.

What's next: "The Bush model alone is no longer enough," MIT president Rafael Reif told the audience at the event, which marked the 75th anniversary of Bush's report. While it remains credible, the world faces workforce changes from automation, climate change and other pressures Bush couldn't have envisioned, Reif said.

  • Reif called for focused investment in a short list of scientific fields including AI and quantum computing, and a "DARPA-like approach to fostering fundamental research in specific fields in pursuit of advances."
  • The U.S. must remain open to foreign talent, Reif argued. "Foreign students should be properly vetted and then we should in effect staple a green card to their diploma," he told the audience.

But in a world where science is more international and cooperative than ever, is there still a place for the national science policy Bush advocated? Panelists said science as a global enterprise and as a national competitive advantage aren't incompatible and that the tension can be productive.

The bottom line: Bush's "endless frontier" laid the groundwork for postwar American prosperity. But if science is to help the U.S. and the world meet the challenges of the next 75 years, the colossus Bush helped create will need to grow more nimble.

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