On July 19, 1945—2.5 months after Germany’s surrender in World War II and 3 weeks before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the most influential science policy report in U.S. history was publicly released in Washington, DC. Titled Science, the Endless Frontier, the 34-page report was written by Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. As a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before the war, Bush had been frustrated by the difficulties of applying new knowledge and new technologies to national needs, including those of the military. After becoming head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1939, Bush worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers to foster government support for wartime programs that led to the development of radar, penicillin, anti-submarine weapons, and the atomic bomb. Science, the Endless Frontier was Bush’s effort to apply the lessons of war to the opportunities of peace.
Governmental support for researchers in colleges, universities, and research institutes remains at the core of the U.S. research enterprise. But science and the society it serves have changed dramatically in the past 75 years. The research enterprise is much larger and much more international, interdisciplinary, reliant on large facilities, and interconnected with other societal sectors, including much of the private-sector economy and industry, the military, and the nonprofit sector. New and longstanding problems have come to the fore such as pandemics, chronic diseases, societal inequities, systemic racism, cybersecurity, climate change societal polarization, and mass migrations. Based on its past successes, science is being asked to help solve these problems, some of which scientific successes have helped create. Is the approach described in Science, the Endless Frontier still the best way to organize and fund scientific research?
Science, the Endless Frontier was “the guiding force for government support of innovation and basic research that ultimately drove decades of U.S. prosperity, health, and national security,” McNutt said. The partnership between government and science helped make the United States the world leader in technology, engineering, and medicine. Recognizing the origins of that success, other nations embraced research and innovation as the key to prosperity for their own citizens. The result has been an increasingly international, collaborative, and interdisciplinary science and technology system that has become an even greater force for economic growth and social change than in the postwar years.
No one can predict exactly how science and society will change in the next 75 years, McNutt observed. But new knowledge will be integral to these changes, as it has been for the past 75 years. “The stakes are high,” she said. “We need to find ways to make all of our institutions, including my own, more responsive and nimble in a fast-moving world. We must ask if we are doing enough to inspire, nurture, and cultivate our young people. We have to encourage diversity and inclusion and create an informed citizenry that values decision making and policies based on science and evidence.”
As at the end of World War II, the challenges facing society are daunting, from climate change to social inequalities, from emerging diseases to the spread of scientific misinformation. But “I’m confident that we will forge a strong path forward for our nation’s research enterprise,” McNutt said. Doing so “will enable many more decades of economic growth, health, and prosperity to come.”