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Scientific Progress is Essential

By: Vannevar Bush. 1945 07. United States Government Printing Office.

This article is to be used for educational support purposes only.

We all know how much the new drug, penicillin, has meant to our grievously wounded men on the grim battlefronts of this war – the countless lives it has saved – the incalculable suffering which its use has prevented. Science and the great practical genius of this nation made this achievement possible.

Some of us know the vital role which radar has played in bringing the United Nations to victory over Nazi Germany and in driving the Japanese steadily back from their island bastions. Again, painstaking scientific research over many years made radar possible.

We often forget the millions of pay envelopes on a peaceful Saturday night, filled because new products and new industries have provided jobs for countless Americans. Science made that possible, too.

In 1939, millions of people were employed in industries that did not even exist at the close of the last war – radio, air conditioning, rayon, and other synthetic fibers and plastics are examples of the products of these industries. However, these things do not mark the end of progress – they are but the beginning if we make full use of our scientific resources. New manufacturing industries can be started, and many older industries can be greatly strengthened and expanded if we continue to study nature’s laws and apply new knowledge to practical purposes.

Significant advances in agriculture are also based on scientific research. Plants that are more resistant to disease and are adapted to short growing seasons, the prevention and cure of livestock diseases, the control of our insect enemies, better fertilizers, and improved agricultural practices stem from painstaking scientific research.

When put to practical use, advances in science mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past. Advances in science will also bring higher standards of living, prevent or cure diseases, promote the conservation of our limited national resources, and ensure a means of defense against aggression. Nevertheless, to achieve these objectives – to secure a high level of employment and maintain a position of world leadership – the flow of new scientific knowledge must be continuous and substantial.

Our population increased from 75 million to 130 million between 1900 and 1940. In some countries, comparable increases have been accompanied by famine. In this country, the increase has been accompanied by a more abundant food supply, better living, leisure, longer life, and better health. This is largely the product of three factors – the free play of initiative of a vigorous people under democracy, the heritage of great national wealth, and the advance of science and its application.

Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can only be effective in the national welfare as a team member, whether in peace or war. Nevertheless, with scientific progress, some achievements in other directions can ensure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.

Science Is a Proper Concern of the Government

It has been basic United States policy that the Government should foster the opening of new frontiers. It opened the seas to clipper ships and furnished land for pioneers. Although these frontiers have more or less disappeared, the frontier of science remains. It is in keeping with the American tradition – one which has made the United States great – that new frontiers shall be made accessible for development by all American citizens.

Moreover, since health, well-being, and security are proper concerns of the Government, scientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to the Government. Without scientific progress, national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress, we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or increased jobs for our citizens; without scientific progress, we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.

Government Relations to Science – Past and Future

From its early days, the Government has taken an active interest in scientific matters. During the nineteenth century, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Naval Observatory, the Department of Agriculture, and the Geological Survey were established. Through the Land Grant College Act, the Government has supported research in state institutions for over 80 years on a gradually increasing scale. Since 1900, a large number of scientific agencies have been established within the Federal Government, until in 1939, they numbered more than 40.

Much of the scientific research done by Government agencies is intermediate between the two types of work commonly referred to as basic and applied research. Almost all Government scientific work has ultimate practical objectives, but in many fields of broad national concern, it commonly involves long-term investigation of a fundamental nature. Generally speaking, the scientific agencies of Government are not so concerned with immediate practical objectives as are the laboratories of industry nor, on the other hand, are they as free to explore any natural phenomena without regard to possible economic applications as are the educational and private research institutions. Government scientific agencies have splendid records of achievement but need more in function.

We have no national policy for science. The Government has only begun to utilize science for the nation’s welfare. Nobody within the Government is charged with formulating or executing a national science policy. There are no standing committees of the Congress devoted to this vital subject. Science has been in the wings. It should be brought to the center of the stage – for in it lies much of our hope for the future.

There are areas of science in which the public interest is acute but likely to be cultivated inadequately if provided with more support than will come from private sources. These areas – such as research on military problems, agriculture, housing, public health, specific medical research, and research involving expensive capital facilities beyond the capacity of private institutions – should be advanced by active Government support. Except for the intensive war research conducted by the Office of Scientific Research and Development, such support has been meager and intermittent.

For reasons presented in this report, we are entering a period when science needs and deserves increased support from public funds.

Freedom of Inquiry Must Be Preserved

Public and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are primary research centers. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and 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.

Many lessons learned in the wartime application of science under Government can be profitably applied in peace. The Government is peculiarly fitted to perform certain functions, such as coordinating and supporting broad programs on problems of great national importance. However, we must proceed with caution in carrying over the methods that work in wartime to the very different conditions of peace. We must remove the rigid controls we have had to impose and recover freedom of inquiry and that healthy, competitive scientific spirit so necessary for the expansion of the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice in the manner dictated by their curiosity to explore the unknown. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science under the Five Fundamentals listed.

The meaningful questions presented in President Roosevelt’s letter have been studied by able committees working diligently. This report presents conclusions and recommendations based on the studies of these committees, which appear in full as the appendices. Only in creating one overall mechanism rather than several does this report depart from the specific recommendations of the committees. The members of the committees have reviewed the recommendations regarding the single mechanism and have found this plan thoroughly acceptable.

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