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From science to science policy

The document that most marked a turning point for US research and higher-education policies was written in July 1945, as World War II drew to a close, by Vannevar Bush, the director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, and involved in the Manhattan Project. His report “Science, The Endless Frontier”, commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a huge impact on the world of science. Roosevelt, had a major influence on innovation policies and the advancement of knowledge in the United States. The document transformed the lessons of the war into pragmatic proposals for federal support of research: Bush was one of two scientists in the Supreme Atomic Research Council, formed in 1942, and played a leading role in the atomic bomb project and later in other scientific-military commissions and projects that characterised the US government’s massive commitment to the arms race that followed the end of World War II.

Given the historical period in which this paper was produced, fundamental research was being examined for its potential wartime role—in August 1945 the atomic bombs were dropped as the culmination of one of the largest and most expensive military–scientific projects ever undertaken by man. However, it is no exaggeration to say that Bush’s document marked the beginning of modern scientific policy and contains ideas that go far beyond a policy driven solely by the pursuit of building ever more sophisticated and destructive weapons.

The main thrust of Bush’s report is still relevant today: without investment in science as a whole, a nation has no future. In this regard, Bush argued the need to radically innovate the public research system, emphasising the need to train generations of new scientists—only by investing in training can we have innovation and development—and stressing the importance of basic research, publicly available to all, for the advancement of knowledge.

Another important point in Bush’s report concerns the different role of the public and private sectors: The state must have the task of constantly funding basic research through the creation of an independent agency (which would later be the National Science Foundation). The aim of this agency should be to support scientific research and the advancement of scientific education to isolate frontier research from the pressure of immediate product commodification.  On the other hand, industry should develop applied research by drawing on public knowledge and recruiting young people trained in universities. Bush’s report has been an important instrument of science policy in the United States, and today 66% of research in American universities is publicly funded.

Let’s read some excerpts from Vannaver Bush’s report

“The pioneering spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers largely unexplored territory for the pioneer who has the proper tools. The rewards of such exploration, both for the nation and the individual, are great.

Scientific progress is an essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural advancement.

Progress in the war against disease depends on the flow of new scientific knowledge. New products, new industries and new jobs require continuous additions to our knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge for practical purposes.

Science can only be useful to the welfare of the nation as a member of a team, whether the conditions are of peace or war. But without scientific progress no progress in other directions can ensure our health, prosperity and security as a nation in the modern world.

Colleges, universities and public and private research institutes are the centres of basic research. They are the sources of the knowledge of understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in government, industry, or elsewhere.

Basic research is a long-term process – it ceases to be basic if the results are expected in the short term. Ways must therefore be found for the agency (which supports its funding) to commit to investing funds in programmes lasting five years or more.”