At the end of World War II, academic researchers had reason to feel uneasy about the approach proposed in Science, the Endless Frontier, observed Rafael Reif, president of MIT, in the opening session of the symposium. The model was new and untested in peacetime. Researchers at colleges and universities worried that federal funding was a short and dangerous step toward federal interference in research. As France Córdova, director of NSF, pointed out in her subsequent presentation, the nation was scaling down the war effort that had dominated the economy and society at the end of World War II. It would have been simple for the United States to scale down its wartime funding for science and technology as well.
But Bush’s model was exceptionally well suited to its time, Reif said. The United States was positioned for global dominance, was primed for growth, and had been spared wide-scale and extreme destruction on its own soil. Faith in institutions was high, including faith in government and universities. The public was energized by an uncommon sense of unity and confidence, which made major policy innovations possible.
World War II had demonstrated how much progress science and technology could make in a short period of time, Córdova added. Bush knew that the United States could no longer rely on Europe’s research community for new ideas on which it could build new technologies. Rather, being at the forefront of basic science had become indispensable to a nation’s industrial, educational, and economic success. As Bush wrote in his report, “A nation which depends on others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position regardless of its mechanical skill.” Furthermore, basic research should not just be prioritized alongside other national priorities, said Córdova. As a driver of progress, it
“A nation which depends on others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position regardless of its mechanical skill.”
underpinned those priorities. “The vision that Vannevar Bush laid out in Science, the Endless Frontier was nothing less than a fundamental reorientation of the relationship between basic research and the government.”
The product of this postwar reorientation, said Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen in his opening remarks at the symposium, was a peacetime engine of prosperity. “One of the greatest legacies of the war turned out to be a scientific enterprise that could benefit our nation, and in fact all of humanity, in times of peace.”
An Unmatched Research and Development System
One of the most important legacies of Science, the Endless Frontier has been a system of higher education that is unmatched anywhere in the world, said Robert Conn, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of The Kavli Foundation. After World War II, spurred by government funding for research and higher education, America’s colleges and universities expanded substantially, both in size and in the number and diversity of the students they enrolled. Bush’s report
“transformed education in America,” Conn said. “The scale and scope of our public and private universities is dramatically different today than it was in 1940.” This great expansion of U.S. higher education produced not only new knowledge but also the well-trained graduates who would put that knowledge to work—“the people who will help us stay strong.”
Bush’s vision encompassed other kinds of research institutions as well. As an example, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander pointed to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is one of 17 national laboratories supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The laboratory performs a wide range of basic and applied research from fundamental nuclear physics to applied research and development (R&D) on advanced energy systems. It has the world’s fastest computers along with facilities for making medical devices, robotic arms, airplane parts, and even whole cars and buildings. Building on the laboratory’s strengths, Alexander proposed a new Manhattan Project for Clean Energy centered on 10 grand challenges, many based on ideas proposed by the National Academy of Engineering, including advanced nuclear reactors, carbon capture, better batteries, greener buildings, electric vehicles, and cheaper solar energy. This new Manhattan Project would “use American research and technology to put us on a path toward clean energy,” Alexander said.
The system Bush proposed to support basic research has itself changed over the past 75 years. Even NSF is a much different organization today than when it was established in a townhouse just north of the White House in 1950, Córdova observed. Today, it employs thousands of staff members and welcomes visitors from around the world. It has added new areas of research support, including the social sciences, computer and information sciences, and engineering. It has supported the construction and operation of major research facilities, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which stunned the world in 2016 when
it detected gravitational waves generated by the collision of two black holes more than 1 billion light-years away.
As part of its research portfolio, NSF is making long-term investments guided by 10 Big Ideas that represent the most challenging and most promising frontiers of exploration, said Córdova, including Harnessing the Data Revolution, the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier, Understanding the Rules of Life, and Windows on the Universe. It is building new partnerships with industry and philanthropy that will enhance scientific research and pave the way for new discoveries to become new products and services more quickly. It supports education from primary school through early-career researchers and works to increase the representation of all Americans in science, because “having a diversity of voices and perspectives enables us
to make greater progress,” said Córdova. “NSF continues to be an engine for discoveries that fuel our economy and support our national defense and a fountainhead for innovation and entrepreneurship that is enhancing the way we live every day…. That was Bush’s real vision—that the frontier is truly endless.”
The variety of agencies that support research and the diversity of the institutions that conduct research have created a robust U.S. science and technology ecosystem, noted Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In addition to the $150 billion spent annually by the federal government on R&D each year, private industry spends more than $400 billion. “We have an incredible R&D engine in this country that is unsurpassed in the world,” Droegemeier said.
Competition from Abroad
Other nations, recognizing the advantages to be gained through support of scientific research, have adopted strategies similar to those in the United States. As Van Hollen pointed out, the U.S. share of global R&D spending fell from almost 40 percent in the year 2000 to 28 percent in 2017. During that period, China’s share of global R&D funding rose from less than 5 percent to more than 25 percent. “There’s obviously going to be a natural change in our share as countries like China and India increase their investments,” said Van Hollen. “But the reality is that we need to take a fresh look at where we are and where we need to go…. We can’t rest on our laurels as the world changes. We have to adapt our strategy.”
Alexander emphasized this point as well. Between 2005 and 2020, China invested in a 15-year innovation plan, boosted its investments on research and technology to 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and substantially improved its standard of living. “China is building more nuclear reactors than any other country, has the most supercomputers on the top 500 list, and has made many biomedical discoveries, including the most effective treatment for malaria,” he said. Borrowing an analogy from Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, Alexander said that the United States is like a very good football team playing in a league where all of the other teams have improved. “We should be very proud of what has happened in 75 years,” he said. “But it’s also important for Americans to know that we’re playing in a much better league over the next 75 years.”
Relying entirely on the model laid out in Science, the Endless Frontier is no longer sufficient, said Reif. Intense global competition has emerged, especially in some high-stakes advanced technologies. The advent of a
digital economy is profoundly disrupting the workforce, and the world is under tremendous pressure to understand, predict, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. “Vannevar Bush had a supremely orderly mind, but he envisioned a wild garden of scientific possibility, a garden whose growth was limited only by the boundless curiosity and talent of the American people,” Reif said. “We still need that wild garden. We still need the NSF to fund and promote curiosity-driven fundamental research across the whole range of scientific inquiry. But the current moment also requires something more and different.”
Meeting the Need for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)-Educated Talent
The first need Reif identified is for rapid progress in educating human capital. The United States must find ways to provide high-quality, accessible, and affordable STEM education to as many people as possible, he said, including minorities who have been underrepresented in STEM fields. This must begin with K–12 education and progress all the way through graduate school, not only in institutions that are already strong but also in institutions throughout the country. Colleges and universities need to prepare a new generation of students to be bilingual in artificial intelligence and as fluent in computing as they are in urban planning, economics, or biology. Students need to be deeply schooled in the ethical principles and cultural values that must inform powerful technologies. Federal investments in scholarships, fellowships, traineeships, and postdoctoral awards are needed in key fields, Reif said.
Workers must be prepared for the digital economy, which has been growing at about 10 percent per year as compared to the legacy economy that has grown at just about 2 percent per year. Good new jobs will require digital skills, and people need those skills to
transform jobs into careers. The relative lack of people prepared for such jobs creates a bottleneck to U.S. economic growth, Reif observed. Every educational avenue must be explored, from apprenticeships to online and blended instruction to micro-credentials. Industry and labor need to step up and work together to upscale current workers. Young people from groups that are still painfully underrepresented in STEM fields, including women and minorities, should receive special attention. “This is clearly the right thing to do, and also the smart thing, because we would tap a deep new pool of talent,” Reif said. “The STEM fields have long been one of the most reliable escalators to the middle class. We need to keep that escalator moving.”
To meet the demand for a STEM workforce, the United States must maintain its ability to attract and retain top talent from abroad. “America needs to stop sending a signal to the world that we no longer welcome newcomers,” Reif said. “I have encountered broad support in Washington, DC, for the idea that, when a foreign student earns a STEM degree from a U.S. institution, we should do the proper vetting and then, in effect, staple a green card to their diploma.” For colleges and universities, and for the nation as a whole, immigration is “a kind of oxygen, each fresh wave reenergizing the body as a whole,” he said. “Closing America’s doors to new talent would have terrible long-term consequences for the nation’s scientific enterprise.”
Van Hollen also emphasized the importance of making sure that every student in America who wants to go into the sciences, no matter
where he or she lives, is encouraged from an early age to do that. “We can build that path to a better future where we put to work the talent of every boy or girl in America who has a dream of participating with all of you in the scientific enterprise.”
The second need Reif identified is for a more focused approach to discovering and developing novel ideas in critical technology fields. “The unsettling truth is that the U.S. position of global technological leadership is under threat.” The United States has no presence in next-wave telecommunications, he said. It remains barely ahead in machine learning and artificial intelligence and is behind in several sub-fields of those domains. “From China to Europe, global competitors are deliberately setting out to take our lead, and we are to a large extent letting it happen because we have not pushed for a coordinated response across universities, industry, and government,” he said.
Inventing the industries of the future, maintaining national security, and confronting climate change will require focused and sustained investments in critical areas of research, said Reif. To make this happen, current budget constraints must be overcome and business as usual disrupted. One promising approach, he observed, would to be create a new technology directorate at NSF focused on high-stakes technologies, with the humanities and social sciences integral to the research from the start because of these technologies’ social consequences.
The responsibility for supporting targeted research inevitably belongs with the federal government, Reif added. No other entity, company, foundation, university, or philanthropist can provide the sustained funding at scale, the patience, and the commitment to provide the new knowledge that is needed.
Translating Research into Applications
The third and final need Reif identified is for novel ways to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of technology from laboratories to the marketplace. A new competitiveness strategy must support ideas and inventions that could make a major difference for serious global problems but are too risky or complex to attract venture capital funding, he said. MIT, for example, created an accelerator program called The Engine specifically to develop what Reif called “tough tech startups.” In 2 years, The Engine funded 19 companies developing technologies ranging from fusion energy to zero emission metal production to home diagnostics. “While the U.S. innovation ecosystem remains one of the best in the world, it needs to be the best,” he said. “We’re
not the fastest in moving innovations to market. That distinction currently belongs to China.”
Additional sources of capital could help entrepreneurs get their ideas to market faster. “In effect, we need to farm for innovation as we would for a crop that our society needs to survive, because it does,” said Reif. “To achieve the kind of practical benefits Vannevar Bush was seeking, we have to build on the system he devised and reach beyond it.”
This is a point that Droegemeier made as well. “We can’t think short term; we have to think long term,” he said. A new competitiveness strategy “needs to transcend multiple congresses and multiple administrations. We have to, as a nation, come together and take not a whole-of-government approach, but a whole-of-nation approach.”
The essential elements of Science, the Endless Frontier remain foundational, said Droegemeier. Research and education need to be strong. Students need opportunities to dream, to innovate, and to compete. American values need to comport with the values researchers pursue in terms of acting with integrity, openness, and honesty. “It is our high task to take what Dr. Bush put in place and take it to the next level and build upon it, as we always do in science.”