|This Week in History
November 15-21, 1944
President Franklin Roosevelt Outlines Plans for Postwar Scientific Research and Development
After the tide of World War II had turned in favor of the Allies, President Roosevelt greatly expanded the planning process for shaping the postwar world. The United Nations, the Bretton Woods Monetary System, and the veterans' benefits guaranteed by the G.I. Bill of Rights were all moved into semi-finished form in 1944, although much initial planning had been done in earlier years. Then, on November 20, 1944, the President sent a letter to Dr. Vannevar Bush, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the agency responsible for overseeing the Manhattan Project as well as developing many other military technologies such as radar-guided rockets and the Microwave Early Warning System.
President Roosevelt asked Dr. Bush and his group to answer four questions, and in that process produce suggestions about what role the U.S. government could play in postwar scientific research. Roosevelt began the letter by stating that "The Office of Scientific Research and Development, of which you are the Director, represents a unique experiment of teamwork and cooperation in coordinating scientific research and in applying existing scientific knowledge to the solution of the technical problems paramount in war. Its work has been conducted in the utmost secrecy and carried on without public recognition of any kind; but its tangible results can be found in the communiques coming in from the battle fronts all over the world. Some day the full story of its achievements can be told.
"There is, however, no reason why the lessons to be found in this experiment cannot be profitably employed in times of peace. The information, the techniques, and the research experience developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in the universities and in private industry, should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.
"It is with that objective in mind that I would like to have your recommendations on the following four major points:
"First: What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
"The diffusion of such knowledge should help us stimulate new enterprises, provide jobs for our returning servicemen and other workers, and make possible great strides for the improvement of the national well-being.
"Second: With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
"The fact that the annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war should make us conscious of the duty we owe future generations.
"Third: What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations? The proper roles of public and of private research, and their interrelation, should be carefully considered.
"Fourth: Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?
"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.
"I hope that, after such consultation as you may deem advisable with your associates and others, you can let me have your considered judgment on these matters as soon as convenientreporting on each when you are ready, rather than waiting for completion of your studies on all."
In response to the President's letter, Vannevar Bush established four committees, each to prepare data and answer one of the four questions. The committee members, in turn, also consulted leading scientists in the fields which were being studied. Much work was accomplished in the early months of 1945, but the final report, entitled "ScienceThe Endless Frontier," was only completed on July 5, almost two months after Roosevelt's death.
The recommendations of the report were submitted to President Truman, who acted on some of them. In response to the problem of disseminating scientific knowledge gained during the war, the report recommended that a declassification board be established to control the release of scientific information for publication. By Executive Order 9568, President Truman did establish a Publication Board in the summer of 1945 to release such information as would not jeopardize national security, and a few months later, the scope of the order was extended to include the release of enemy scientific and industrial information.
Dr. Bush's final report also recommended a greater degree of international exchange of scientific information. It called for the U.S. government to arrange international science congresses, to officially receive foreign scientists, and to provide international fellowships in the sciences.
In answering President Roosevelt's question about medical research, the report recommended an expanded research effort in fields where knowledge was still limited. For example, it was stated that chronic disease of the kidneys, arteriosclerosis, and cerebral hemorrhage accounted for 45% of the deaths in the United States. Infectious diseases and cancer ranked second and third as causes of death. Mental diseases were increasing at the rate of 125,000 annually, yet for all of the above afflictions, modern medicine still had much to learn.
The report stated that basic research in medicine was primarily the responsibility of the medical schools and universities, yet their endowment income, foundation grants, and private donations had been diminishing. Therefore, to maintain the nation's progress in medicine, it was necessary for the government to offer grants for research and for medical school and university fellowships.
In answer to Roosevelt's third question about aiding research by both public and private organizations, the report recommended expanding government support of science. Specifically, it called for the establishment of a Scientific Advisory Board to consult with U.S. government agencies, and to advise the President and Congress. On October 17, 1946, President Truman implemented this recommendation by establishing the President's Scientific Research Board, which was composed of the heads of 12 Federal departments and agencies, and chaired by the Director of War Mobilization and Reconversion.
There were further recommendations on encouraging industrial research. First, the Internal Revenue Code was to liberalize deductions for research and development expenditures. Second, the patent system would be strengthened by removing uncertainties which had hampered small industries in turning new ideas into actual products. Dealing with future national security, the report also advocated more military research in peacetime, controlled by a civilian organization with close liaison to the Army and Navy.
On Roosevelt's fourth question, dealing with fostering young scientists, the report estimated that World War II had created a deficit of 150,000 science and technology students who would have received college degrees if there had been no war. It also stated that by 1955, there would be a deficit of 17,000 students who might have obtained their advanced degrees by that time. Therefore, the report urged that in order not to depend on the circumstances of family fortune to obtain trained scientists, the Federal government should provide undergraduate and graduate financial support.
Finally, Dr. Bush's group took a broad overview of the objectives laid out in the report, and proposed that a National Research Foundation be established for assisting scientific research conducted outside the government. The Foundation would be composed of the divisions of medical research, natural sciences, national defense, scientific personnel and education, and publications and scientific collaboration. The Foundation would be steered by a nine-member board of Presidential appointees with four-year overlapping terms. Grants and contracts would be made to organizations outside the Federal government.
Although these recommendations were implemented piecemeal and with modifications by various Presidents, they did eventually coalesce over time into the larger policies which Franklin Roosevelt and Vannevar Bush's working groups had envisioned.