Jun 25, 2020 - Science

The long-term gains of Big Science

Illustration of binoculars with beaker in its lenses

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The World War II era surge in investing in scientific research and development propelled the U.S. on a decades-long trajectory for innovation and seeded technological clusters across the country, according to new research.

Why it matters: 75 years after Vannevar Bush laid out the ambitious plan for federal spending on science, experts are calling for similar investments to stimulate innovation in the U.S. today.

  • "In the next 75 years, will the U.S. be at the global technology frontier and are we making the investments we need to make now to ensure that that's the case? "says study co-author Daniel Gross of Harvard University. "The paper indicates those investments can pay long dividends."

Background: In the 1940s, the U.S. injected the equivalent of $7.4 billion today in R&D via the Office of Scientific Research and Development, spearheaded by Bush.

  • Via more than 2,200 contracts with industry and academic labs, the funding was directed toward the development of weapons, optics, chemistry, medicine and more.

What they found: In a new working paper, Gross and Bhaven Sampat of Columbia University compiled archival data about OSRD contracts, their patent records and publications, and county-level employment data to look at the long-term effects of the war-era investments.

  • One outcome was that by 1970, U.S. patenting was more than 50% greater than that in Great Britain or France compared to pre-war levels, they write.
  • Another was that funding was directed to areas like Boston, which went on to become — and remains — a hub for research in electronics. (Similarly, D.C. became a center for defense technology and L.A. one for aeronautics.)
  • And counties with more patents in electronics originating with OSRD saw an increase in manufacturing jobs associated with those industries. "Empirically, a doubling of OSRD patents in the 1940s is associated with 60-65% higher employment in these industries in the 1970s," they write.
  • One limitation is the researchers couldn't account for how much the impact of OSRD built on a pre-existing base of scientific knowledge in different regions and institutions, an ongoing debate among historians.

What's next: The researchers are now trying to determine how these short-term shocks in investment can have persistent effects and how that can shape policy priorities.

  • The paper also confirms a concern from critics of the day: investment was concentrated in regions and institutions, and those same places reaped the benefits decades out.
  • "If we care about technology, not only for its own sake, but also for the social outcomes it generates, working backwards from that might get us to allocate funds differently," says Sampat.
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