On February 26, 2020—the same week as the first death from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was reported in the United States and 3 months before the killing of George Floyd set off massive protests against racism across the world—the National Academy of Sciences, in partnership with The Kavli Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, held a symposium to envision the future of the scientific enterprise. The February symposium in Washington, DC, brought together some of the nation’s most distinguished and accomplished experts on science and technology policy to explore whether the modern research architecture needs to be restructured to meet the challenges of our time. Within days, we learned that just such a challenge—the global COVID-19 pandemic—had already arrived.
The symposium marked the 75th anniversary of the landmark report Science, the Endless Frontier, which was released in the final weeks of another global crisis—World War II. Written by Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a close adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the report envisioned a radically different relationship between the federal government and the nation’s research enterprise. Bush knew, based on his experiences before and during the war, that a thriving economy and strong national defense required both a steady stream of new scientific ideas and a highly educated workforce that could extend and apply those ideas. His report therefore proposed that the government greatly increase its support of basic scientific research, mostly in the nation’s colleges and universities. The success of the new social contract that Bush forged transformed higher education, industry, government, and the economy. It created a powerful engine of innovation and skilled people that has served as the basis for decades of prosperity, health, and geopolitical leadership.
Today, society is counting on science, engineering, and medicine to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic—an unprecedented health, economic, and social crisis that is disproportionately hitting racial and ethnic minorities the hardest. The pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on longstanding systemic and structural racial and economic inequities—a crisis of inequality for justice, health, education, freedom, prosperity, quality housing and food, and upward mobility. As we develop immediate solutions and plan for long-term recovery, we also have an opportunity to create a more just, robust, and resilient nation for all of our citizens. To do this, we must address systemic issues of inequity in our society—including in our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) enterprise.
The need for new ideas emerging from scientific research and for well-trained and diverse young people is even more acute now than it was 75 years ago. Many of the symposium speakers lauded Bush’s foresight in promoting an idea that was not at all guaranteed to work. Before World War II, most scientific research had been funded by philanthropies and private industry, with the federal government limiting its research expenditures to problems of immediate practical importance and to the military services. But World War II demonstrated that science was becoming the single most important force driving technological, economic, and societal change. By entering into a new partnership with science, the government could serve not only its interests in defense and the economy but also its interests and concerns for society as a whole.
Today, a powerful argument can be made for substantially increased investment in research in the United States. Equally great is the need to train the next generation of scientists and citizens for what will be a very different world. The concentration of wealth, health, learning, and opportunity among a relatively small proportion of society threatens to undermine support for an innovation system that could, if properly applied, produce widely distributed
benefits. At the symposium, participants discussed how rising to this and other challenges will require that universities, both in their students and faculty members, reflect the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and intellectual diversity of the nation.
The modern research enterprise is many times larger and much more collaborative, multidisciplinary, and international than it was in 1945. Research increasingly integrates knowledge and tools from the life sciences, the physical sciences, engineering, and other fields into what has been termed “convergence science.” Excelling in today’s research environment requires a broader set of skills than were needed in the past. Researchers need to be versatile learners who can collaborate and share relevant knowledge and expertise across disciplinary and national boundaries. The research community itself needs to be much more diverse, both to attract a greater range and number of people into science and to spur scientific creativity. These changes in the research community, which are still in their early stages, call for a careful reconsideration of the reward system of science, which has traditionally emphasized individual investigators working on narrowly focused topics, in contrast with much of the science that needs to be done today.
Today’s researchers also need to be adept communicators, both with other researchers and with non-scientists. At the symposium, the actor Alan Alda, who is the co-founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, delighted attendees by demonstrating how the center works with scientists to hone their communication skills. Demystifying science through better science communication to non-scientific audiences can help build support for research while creating a more informed electorate. All of science faces this need in a time when expertise has been undermined and misinformation can easily proliferate.
After being the major supporter of scientific research before World War II, philanthropies were overshadowed by growing governmental support for science in the postwar years. But more recently, private giving for scientific research, especially by newly wealthy individuals and their foundations, has surged. Philanthropists have realized that private support for science can do things that government agencies cannot. Such support can fund riskier projects, enable research that falls between the cracks of agency interests, foster new areas of discovery, and drive cultural change. Government support for science needs to remain strong, as Bush observed in his report. But an emerging hybrid system of public and private support for science is diversifying and strengthening the research ecosystem.
The relationship between government and academic research has itself changed since World War II. Envisioning universities funded by public dollars as the dynamo that would power the nation was an act of considerable imagination on the part of Bush and the small group of advisers who contributed to the report. However, this new relationship between government and universities has raised different concerns, such as the risk of espionage from research laboratories, the need to speed the transition from research to products and services, and the challenge of coordinating actions in a diversified research portfolio. The government–university partnership has had great success, but changes in that relationship could produce even greater success.
As Bush realized at the end of World War II, times of great change bring equally great opportunities. Science, the Endless Frontier demonstrated that careful analysis and visionary thinking can send nations in previously unanticipated directions that can benefit people everywhere. Similarly, in the years ahead, we can build a stronger and more resilient world by thinking carefully about how the lessons of the past can be applied to current and future challenges.
President, National Academy of Sciences
President and Chief Executive Officer, The Kavli Foundation
President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation