Science, The Endless Frontier

Yes, we're still talking about it

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Science, The Endless Frontier is generally recognized as the iconic text of U.S. science policy. The 1945 document, officially attributed to engineer Vannevar (rhymes with Beaver) Bush, urged President Harry Truman to convert the momentum of the World War II-era Office of Scientific Research and Development into a peacetime driver for economic prosperity and military might. The document famously describes a linear research model in which basic research, generously funded and left unperturbed by federal authority, magically produces medical breakthroughs, powerful weaponry, and economic growth. While the ultimate form of the National Science Foundation departed from Bush’s vision in several key respects, he’s usually credited with the idea of a national research agency led and more-or-less controlled by scientists.

Until last year, your best bet to read Science, The Endless Fronter was a very 1990s-era HTML site built for the National Science Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration. I’ve linked to it for years, always fearing it was just a server update away from oblivion.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the report’s release, we’ve been blessed with not one, but two, new editions. The first, issued by the National Science Foundation, reunites Bush’s classic text on the role of science in the federal government with several key committee reports that appeared as appendices to the original document. The reports of the Medical Advisory Committee, the Committee on Science and the Public Welfare, the Committee on Discovery and Development of Scientific Talent, and the Committee on Publication of Scientific Information provide essential context for debates on science policy that riveted Washington in the late 1940s. This edition will likely be the go-to primary source for students of the history of U.S. science policy for the considerable future.

Contemporary watchers of science policy may find the second new edition more useful. Here, the draw is not so much the text of Bush’s report itself, but rather an excellent critical introduction by Rush Holt. Holt, a 16-year member of the U.S. House of Representatives and more recently the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is deeply familiar with the ins-and-outs of U.S. science policy, including the ways that many scientists invoke Bush’s legacy as a protective shield against public oversight.

Holt is a stalwart supporter of U.S. scientific institutions. This makes his critique all the more interesting. Yes, Science, The Endless Frontier jumpstarted the federal research economy, but, Holt writes, it also “had the effect of distancing science from the public, and vice versa.” Holt’s introduction takes seriously the idea that the United States is a democracy, and that scientists have a specific role to play in that democracy, which is not the same thing as saying that scientists should control science policy. I’m grooving on this passage:

But there is more to science than research, with its specialization and sometimes esoteric techniques, and the tangible outputs are only part of what the public should obtain from the science bargain and only part of what they should think of when they think of science. In its essence, science is a way of asking questions that leads to the most reliable knowledge about how things are. This is its most essential contribution.

Science ≠ research. Got that?

The thing that too few people appreciate about Vannevar Bush is that he wasn’t just a scientific administrator par excellence; he was a consummate Cold Warrior who saw Communism, or even scientific planning, as an existential threat to the American way of life. In 1949, he published a bestselling book, Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy, a fever dream of freedom in the atomic age. You can get a flavor of this text from an excerpt published in the December 5, 1949, issue of Life magazine that ran under the title, “Science, Our Moral Armor.” In case this headline was too subtle, Life helpfully accompanied the article with an illustration of an interdenominational church at the Navy’s Inyokern, California, research facility. Merry Christmas, scientists!

Bush doesn’t—sorry—beat around the bush. Here’s the first paragraph in its entirety:

The world is split into two camps. In blunt summary terms, there are on the one hand those who believe in freedom and the dignity of man and on the other those who believe in a supreme conquering state to which all men would be slaves.

In Bush’s telling, any attempt by the state to steer the direction of scientific research, or even suggest that scientists investigate Topic A rather than Topic B, infringed on scientists’ freedom. Attempts to impose public accountability would render scientists “slaves.”

I’m glad to see both of these new editions of Science, The Endless Frontier widely available, but I wish they’d both offered a little more context on the intense anti-Communism embedded in Bush’s vision. When budding science policy wonks encounter Bush’s vision for the scientific research landscape devoid of this context, they naturalize Science, the Endless Frontier’s approach to scientific self-governance as a reasonable, if perhaps naïve, approach to federal science policy. But it was never naïve. It was a calculated warning shot to Harry Truman, a Democrat who had inherited Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth administration, to tread carefully, lest he lose the support of the scientists whose achievements had helped win the war.

We might also do well to reflect on the layers of ideology baked into the title itself. The United States is a settler colony, which means that its history is an ongoing project of replacing, removing, or eliminating the indigenous peoples who previously populated the territories the United States claimed as its own. In the lore of American history, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier “closed” in 1890, a phenomenon that prompted historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s musings on the role of the frontier in shaping not only the path of development in the United States, but the very character of the nation. (If you want to read it, here’s a link.)

Turner’s “frontier thesis,” with its emphasis on “rugged individualism,” ingenuity, and emergent democracy, became a central plank in U.S. cultural nationalism. Turner’s thesis had remarkably little to say about the acts of genocide that had cleared the “free land” of the frontier, or about the Black Laws that were at the very moment dismantling even the limited form of democracy that had existed across the U.S. South during Reconstruction. It’s a deeply problematic fairy tale of what makes America “special.”

For Bush and his fellow scientific Cold Warriors, the familiar cultural touchstone of the “untamed frontier” offered a powerful way to position scientific research as the next stage of the American experiment. As Bush put it in his letter of transmittal, “Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task.” The frontier might be closed, but the scientists’ ambitions were, indeed, endless.

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So. About Substack. If you’ve somehow missed the Great Substack Shitshow of 2021, first, congratulations. Here’s the post that started it all. While I do not begrudge the choice of authors who decide to stick with the platform, I think I’d rather extricate myself while I still can. I haven’t yet reached a final decision, but I’m likely shifting to Buttondown, which allows authors to publish newsletters with minimal fuss. I’ve been told that Buttondown offers a nearly seamless transition experience, so this shouldn’t require any work on your part.

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