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., I write with managing editor Alison Snyder.
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: Bush served as FDR's scientific adviser during World War II. 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," though the U.S. still spends much more on basic research.
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. also must remain open to foreign talent, Reif said.
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.