Skip to content Skip to navigation


You are here: Home » Content » The Science-Government Compact: 1945-1950



What is a lens?

Definition of a lens


A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

This content is ...

Affiliated with (What does "Affiliated with" mean?)

This content is either by members of the organizations listed or about topics related to the organizations listed. Click each link to see a list of all content affiliated with the organization.
  • Rice Digital Scholarship display tagshide tags

    This module is included in aLens by: Digital Scholarship at Rice UniversityAs a part of collection: "A History of Federal Science Policy from the New Deal to the Present"

    Click the "Rice Digital Scholarship" link to see all content affiliated with them.

    Click the tag icon tag icon to display tags associated with this content.

Recently Viewed

This feature requires Javascript to be enabled.


(What is a tag?)

These tags come from the endorsement, affiliation, and other lenses that include this content.

The Science-Government Compact: 1945-1950

Module by: William Blanpied. E-mail the authorEdited By: Frederick Moody, Ben Allen

We have no national policy for science. The Government has only begun to utilize science in the Nation’s welfare. There is no body within the Government charged with formulating or executing a national science policy. There are no standing committees of the Congress devoted to this important 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.

Science—The Endless Frontier, 1945

There must be a single point close to the President at which the most significant problems created in the research and development program of the Nation as a whole can be brought into policy discussions.

A Program for the Nation, 1947

Scientific research daily becomes more important to our agriculture, our industry, and our health.

—Harry S. Truman, 1948

In the wake of World War II, there was widespread acknowledgment of the contributions organized science had made to the allied victory, and scientists emerged from their ivory towers to be hailed as national heroes. President Truman praised the war efforts of physicists in a statement released immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima, saying, “But the greatest marvel is not the size of the enterprise, its secrecy, or its cost, but the achievement of scientific brains in putting together infinitely complex pieces of knowledge held by many men in different fields of knowledge into a workable plan.”1 Secretary of War Henry Simpson was more effusive and personal: “No praise is too great for the unstinting efforts, brilliant achievements and complete devotion to the national interest of scientists in this country.”

Figure 1: A model of Little Boy, the nuclear bomb that obliterated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, on display at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Photo by the author.
Figure 1 (graphics1.jpg)

Science became a media darling as well. The August 12 Sunday New York Times featured a report by Richard Lewis on Albert Einstein, who “explained the principles of nuclear energy and did so in a manner simple enough that even I could understand what he was talking about.” The same edition noted that Princeton University planned a series of weekly radio broadcasts on issues of current scientific interest featuring “university scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb.” The magazine titled its lead article “We Enter a New Era—the Atomic Age,” and an accompanying photo essay featured brief biographies of Marie and Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Ernest Lawrence.

The front page of the August 15 Times, announcing the surrender of Japan, also reported on “Secrets of Radar Given to the World,” explaining that the OSRD had finally been permitted to release the full story of what Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of wartime British Prime Minister Churchill’s inner circle, was quoted as calling, “the greatest invention of the war.” General David Sarnoff, President of the Radio Corporation of America, flatly asserted, “If a statesman believes that his country’s interest would be better served by isolation than by participation in a world security organization, let me suggest that he debate this question with a scientist rather than a politician.”2 And the Times, after acknowledging the singular scientific achievement of the bomb, asked editorially, “Is this to be the end? Are we to lapse into the old more or less nationalistic pursuit of science when great issues are at stake? Why can’t there be more international cooperation in dealing with arthritis, cancer, hormones, vitamins, or for that matter the whole field of science?”

As a result, by the end if 1945 the notion of linking U.S. science with national social and economic objectives seemed a less partisan issue than it had during the late 1930s. Since science-based technology had contributed demonstrably to military success, it was almost self-evident that science could be mobilized to provide peacetime benefits, contributing to national security and domestic prosperity. As Roosevelt put it, “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.”3

Postwar optimism about the promise of science was part of a broader, nationally shared conviction that the United States had both the material resources and the moral authority required to assure domestic health and prosperity and maintain a beneficent world order. William D. Carey, who had come to the Bureau of the Budget in 1942 with a master’s degree from Harvard’s Littauer School of Government, later recalled:

You have to think of the atmosphere. This was post war, most of the world in ashes, the U.S. riding very, very high, dreaming great dreams—the Full Employment Act, United Nations arrangements, Point IV, the Marshall Plan. And then, along in parallel, there was to be a new age of science, of creativity. This was all to be part of a great strategic thrust toward the good society: high employment, unlimited opportunities, superb education, civil rights. And so we come to the institutional arrangements.
And the opportunities presented themselves. The atmosphere was that we had a new world, and all would go well. There was a very short window of idealism and optimism that closed very abruptly. Out of that, the progression of the institutional arrangements that followed were cast in instrumental terms—in terms of national needs.4

A striking example of postwar optimism about the efficacy of science-based knowledge for policy-making was the establishment of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) in the Executive Office of the President as part of the Employment Act of 1946. The most obvious example of a comparable foreign policy initiative was the Marshall Plan, implemented in 1948.

The genesis of the CEA is already implicit in arguments, advanced in the 1937 Report of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management, that specialized knowledge and objective data are prerequisites for effective governance. That proposition was also explicit in Vannevar Bush’s 1940 plan for a National Defense Research Committee and its successor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development. The assumption that in peacetime science merited at least special political consideration, if not special access to the president, underlay creation of the Atomic Energy Commission5 in 1946 and the National Science Foundation in 1950. And to a remarkable extent, that assumption was accepted by the Bureau of the Budget and the Congress.

All of this momentum notwithstanding, there was little consensus about how to achieve even broadly shared goals. Even before Pearl Harbor, there had been discernible conservative reaction against the economic and social innovations of the New Deal. Within a few months of Truman’s taking office, a congressional coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats was mounting an effective challenge to his attempts to further Roosevelt’s domestic agenda. The November 1946 mid-term elections returned Republican majorities to both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1930, and the party seemed poised to recapture the presidency in 1948, for the first time in sixteen years.

The evolution of science policy between the end of World War II and the invasion of South Korea in June 1950 was conditioned by the volatile domestic and international political environment of those years. There was no consensus about how science could best serve the national interest, or even what national interest outside of national defense science was supposed to serve.

Few at the time denied that science could have significant potential impact on a wide range of enduring national problems. Yet traditional political interests identified with the principal areas of potential impact (agriculture, health, and national defense, for example) were reluctant to relinquish control to the putative guardians of a broad science policy. Moreover, the would-be guardians themselves could not agree on terms under which science could accept federal support. Political passions triggered by the novel proposition that government could legitimately support non-government research obscured the larger issue of how government could establish a broad policy to link that research with essential national objectives.

Appropriate links between science and specific areas of national concern, then, were considered piecemeal in debates over the charters and prerogatives of individual agencies, including the Department of Defense, Atomic Energy Commission, and National Institutes of Health. Much of what passed for a broader debate about national science policy was concerned with the scope and authority of a proposed new agency, originally called the National Research Foundation and later the National Science Foundation, which was envisioned as the single federal entity empowered to channel federal funds to non-government research, particularly in universities. This vision was never realized; in the five years between its proposal and creation, other agencies began supporting university research.

“Science—the Endless Frontier”


The outlines of a broad debate about post-war science policy began emerging in 1943, when West Virginia Democratic Senator Harley M. Kilgore introduced the Science Mobilization Act,6 which included several provisions for organizing and focusing postwar science and technology resources. Included in the Act was creation of an Office of Scientific and Technological Mobilization, an independent federal agency coordinating all federal science and technology agencies and providing assistance for basic and applied research in government laboratories, small businesses, and universities. The office was to be overseen by a board and advisory committee, each comprised of representatives from science and technology, industry, small business, labor, agriculture, and consumer interests.

In 1944, Kilgore drafted a new bill, renaming the federal science agency the National Science Foundation. Because Kilgore’s emphasis had shifted entirely to postwar science-government relations, hearings on the bill were postponed until the end of the war in Europe.

Figure 2: Left to right: Ernest Lawrence, Karl Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Arthur Compton, and Alfred Loomis at the University of California, Berkeley, 1940. Courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley Library.
Figure 2 (graphics2.jpg)

By that time, the Vannevar Bush-led scientific establishment was preparing a counterproposal, in the form of a report entitled Science—the Endless Frontier (often referred to as the “Bush report”). Officially transmitted to Truman on July 5, 1945, the report came in response to a November 1944 Roosevelt letter to Bush, in which the President emphasized that “the research experience developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in the universities and 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.”7

Roosevelt’s letter had raised four questions concerning the declassification of wartime research results; the organization of a program for medicine and related science; government aid to research activities by public and private organizations; and a program for discovering and developing scientific talent.

Although Science— the Endless Frontier included several recommendations intended to strengthen existing research capabilities in bureaus within the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior, its centerpiece was the recommended creation of a National Research Foundation, which would be “a focal point within the Government for a concerted program of assisting scientific research conducted outside of Government.”8 In addition to awarding scholarships and fellowships, the foundation would furnish “the funds needed to support basic research in colleges and universities.” Additionally, it would “coordinate where possible research programs on matters of utmost importance to the national welfare…formulate a national policy for the Government toward science…sponsor the interchange of scientific information among scientists and laboratories both in this country and abroad…ensure that the incentives to research in industry and the universities are maintained.”9

An Act establishing the National Science Foundation was signed into law in May 1950. Although its approach to federal support for science was much closer to the Bush than to the Kilgore concept, the scope and authority of the National Science Foundation were considerably diminished from what either Science—the Endless Frontier or the Kilgore legislation had envisioned. Indeed, the National Science Foundation that finally emerged in 1950 was a bit player among other more established, more powerful agencies. In particular, Bush’s hope that defense research would be included in the National Science Foundation’s charter was not realized. While medical research was not explicitly excluded, the legislative history of the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 implied that Congress preferred all such research to be conducted and supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Enduring Contributions

The Bush report laid down the boundaries for most subsequent debates about the relations between science and government. As such, it remains one of the cornerstones of U.S. science policy. It made four enduring contributions to the conceptualization of science policy in the United States: it asserted that, except for national defense, the proper concern of science policy ought to be the support, as opposed to the utilization, of science; it advanced the proposition that basic research should be the principal focus of federal support for science, again with the exception of national defense; it argued that mechanisms for the support of research must be consistent with the norms of the practitioners of that research; and it suggested that universities, as the principal sites for the conduct of basic research and the exclusive sites for advanced education, literally defined whatever national research system could be said to exist in the United States.

Although the arguments underlying those propositions have more often been honored in the breach than in the observation, the propositions themselves have achieved the status of an unassailable ideal against which actual and proposed policies can be measured.

Science—the Endless Frontier assigned to its proposed National Research Foundation the responsibility to “coordinate where possible research programs on matters of utmost importance to the national welfare.” However, it made no recommendations about how government ought to identify relevant goals, assign scientific priorities that might contribute toward their achievement, or support or otherwise facilitate the conduct of research intended to benefit the national welfare. The report was reasonably specific about coordinating defense-related research, but it did not consider how, or even whether, strategies could be devised to link research with non-defense objectives.

Thus the report defined the central problem for science policy as assuring that the available pool of new knowledge would remain adequate to the needs of those in the best position to use it effectively, as well as to train new generations of scientists and engineers to identify and make use of it. Government had a legitimate role in aiding the quest for new scientific results, but attempts either to direct research toward specific ends or to facilitate the utilization of existing research for non- defense purposes would be counterproductive.

By 1944, the U.S. science establishment realized that the private sources of support sustaining university research prior to 1940 would be inadequate in the postwar era, particularly since destruction of the great pre-war scientific centers of Europe would require the United States to generate much of the world’s new scientific knowledge. Bush and his colleagues seized the opportunity to advance the proposition that the best way for government to assure that science would benefit the public interest would be to leave scientists free to pursue their own interests. Central to that vision was the idea that universities defined science’s center of gravity in the United States; the politically conservative Bush and most of his establishment colleagues were philosophically opposed to government support or control of non-defense-related science in industry, as that would constitute unacceptable government intervention in the marketplace.

Academia, according to Bush and his colleagues, was therefore the sole non-defense sector where federal research support could legitimately be contemplated. Yet any arrangement that made federal support for university research contingent upon proof of relevance to social or economic objectives was anathema. Moreover, government support carried the risk of federal intrusion on traditional scientific norms, the most critical being university autonomy. In the words of the report to Bush by the Committee on Science and the Public Welfare chaired by President Isaiah Bowman of Johns Hopkins University, “We do not believe that any program [of government support] is better than no program—that an ill-advised distribution of funds will aid the growth of science.” In order to be fruitful, “scientific research must be free— free from the influence of pressure groups, free from the necessity of producing immediate practical results, free from the dictation of any central board.” 10

At least since the time of Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century, it has been an article of faith that the advancement of science depends upon self-governance by peer communities. The 1935 proposal of Karl Compton’s Science Advisory Board had foundered in part because it sought to insulate government support for university research from government control by channeling funds through the privately controlled National Research Council. The more politically astute Bush embedded the Baconian norm into the charter of a government agency that would be virtually free from government control. Fiscal and administrative authority was to be vested in a part-time, presidentially appointed group of approximately nine private citizens. In the 1950 legislation, the size of this group was increased to twenty-four and designated as the National Science Board, to be composed primarily of eminent scientists and other individuals with “distinguished records of public service.”11 According to the original Bush formulation, this part-time board was to have had complete authority to appoint and discharge the director of the foundation and the heads of its operating divisions. The principal responsibility of those divisions, also to be comprised of eminent scientists, was to be dispersal of research funds according to their own (and the board’s) interpretation of scientific merit. The board itself was to have additional responsibilities for coordination and oversight of the entire federal research establishment so that the foundation would serve as the “focal point within the Government for a concerted program of assisting scientific research conducted outside of government.”

The National Science Foundation

Congressional Debates

On July 19, 1945, two weeks after Science—the Endless Frontier had been transmitted to Truman and the same day it was released to the public, Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA), by prior arrangement with Bush, introduced legislation to create a National Research Foundation essentially along the lines envisioned by the Bush report.12 Wilbur Mills (D-AK) introduced simultaneous legislation into the House of Representatives. Four days later, Harley Kilgore, angry that he had not been privy either to the centerpiece recommendation of Science—the Endless Frontier or to Bush’s arrangement with Magnuson, reintroduced into the Senate his legislation creating a National Science Foundation. To a remarkable extent, the National Science Foundation Act that President Truman signed into law on May 10, 1950, accepted the original concept in Science—the Endless Frontier of an independent, self-governing agency with the authority to allocate public funds for research priorities and directions determined by the governors themselves. But two provisions of the act departed significantly from Bush’s original formulation. First, an amendment introduced by Congressman Oren Harris (D-AK) limited annual appropriations for the National Science Foundation to $500,000 during the first year and $15 million thereafter.13 Second, the act specified that the president, rather than a presidentially appointed National Science Board, would appoint (and therefore have the authority to discharge) the foundation’s director. A proposed amendment to protect the prerogative of the National Institutes of Health to support all biomedical research in the United States by prohibiting the newly created NSF from doing so failed to pass the Senate. However, the legislative history of the act would be interpreted so as to preclude the NSF from supporting biomedical research.

Harris’ motion to place a ceiling on the foundation’s annual appropriations is notable as one of the few proposed amendments incorporated into the final Act of Congress. Other amendments proposed and defeated during the five-year debate included provisions that would have compelled the National Science Foundation to direct a specific portion of its research funds to finding cures for specific diseases or to reserve up to 25 percent of those funds for geographical distribution rather than for disbursement on the basis of scientific merit.

By the time the legislation was being considered by the eighty-first Congress, elected in November 1948, anti- communist hysteria was mounting, resulting in proposed amendments to require loyalty oaths and even prior investigation by the FBI for all prospective recipients of federal research funds. Both of these amendments were defeated.

A sticking point in the debate over the Bush and Kilgore plans for the NSF was the degree of direct presidential control of the foundation. Twice before May 1950, creation of the agency floundered on this issue. In June 1946, the Senate passed a bill that would have vested administrative authority in a presidentially appointed administrator advised by an external board. That bill expired in July when the more conservative House of Representatives declined to take up the measure. In July 1947, the Republican- controlled eightieth Congress enacted legislation that would have vested ultimate administrative authority and fiscal responsibility in a part-time, presidentially appointed National Science Board, but the act was pocket vetoed by Truman on the grounds that no president could delegate his constitutional responsibility for the expenditure of public funds to a part-time board that would have a direct interest in the dispersion of those funds. The act that was finally signed into law defined the foundation as consisting of a twenty-four– member National Science Board and a Director. The president retained the right to appoint the director, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. But the board retained policy guidance over the foundation, including the authority to approve the disbursement of all research funds. Additionally, the act gave the board various broad oversight responsibilities, including a mandate to periodically evaluate science and engineering in the United States.

Divisions within the Scientific Community

The protracted debate over the NSF brought to the fore deep ideological and political divisions within the scientific community.14 In November 1945, the group of scientists who had been closely associated with Bush’s wartime activities formed a Committee Supporting the Bush Report under the chairmanship of Isaiah Bowman, President of Johns Hopkins University, who had also chaired the Bush committee on Science and the Public Welfare.15 Politically conservative in its orientation, this group steadfastly opposed presidential appointment of the NSF director. One month later, Harold Urey and Harlow Shapley, both liberals, established the more broadly based Committee for a National Science Foundation, many of whose members were openly sympathetic to the Kilgore proposition that science ought to be directed to explicit national goals. In 1946, following the failure of the House to take up the Senate- approved NSF bill, the two groups proceeded to attack each other bitterly and often publicly. Following Truman’s veto of the NSF Act of 1947, a third group, the Intersociety Committee for a National Science Foundation, succeeded in calming the divisive political passions and negotiating with the Bureau of the Budget and Congress the compromise that paved the way for the bill’s passage.

Support for University Research

Roles of New and Invigorated Agencies

By the time the National Science Foundation was created in May 1950, three federal agencies—the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—were already providing substantial support for university research. The $15 million appropriations ceiling attached to the NSF Act by Congressman Harris has been interpreted as an effort to save the legislation from defeat by assuring congressmen who remained unconvinced about the need for yet another agency to support basic research that the new foundation would not inordinately burden the federal budget.16

Shortly after its creation in 1946, the AEC17 began supporting university basic research in nuclear science even though it had been envisioned primarily as assuming control of military nuclear resources. Similarly, the ONR began supporting basic research in universities with no obvious short-term military applications. Several important precedents for project selection established by the ONR were carried over as operating procedures of the NSF after 1950, in large measure because the first NSF director, Alan Waterman, had previously been chief scientist at ONR.

The case of the NIH was—and remains—unique. At the end or World War II, it was still a relatively small agency, most of whose research focused on problems with obvious applications. Along with most of the Public Health Service, it was viewed with suspicion if not hostility by many non-government medical scientists, including W.W. Palmer of Columbia University, Chairman of the Bush’s Medical Advisory Committee.18

In 1948, the National Institute of Health was renamed the National Institutes of Health, and reorganized in subdivisions corresponding to major human disorders. By that time it was reconciling many of its differences with the non-governmental medical establishment and had initiated a substantial extramural program to support research in university medical schools through an innovative contracts system.19 Much of that research, conducted to obtain knowledge of fundamental biological and physiological processes that might conceivably have eventual medical applications, qualified as basic research according to criteria set forth by Science—the Endless Frontier.

In 1950, during final House debate on the National Science Foundation Act, an amendment was introduced that would have preempted the NSF from any assaults on the NIH’s turf. Although defeated, the debate over it highlights the favor with which the NIH’s basic research programs were regarded. The NIH rarely distinguished, at least publicly, between its legislated mandate to improve the health of the American public and its aspirations to be the principal supporter of basic medical research. Just as significant, it required no national defense rationale to justify its support.

The Scope of Science, According to Bush

Bush tended to define the sciences in terms of the mathematical, physical, engineering, and medical disciplines that had been an integral part of his wartime system and for which he could lay some justifiable claim to being a spokesman. Nathan Reingold has remarked on Bush’s curious blind spot regarding the non-medically–oriented biological sciences.20 Representatives of those disciplines were conspicuously absent from the four committees whose deliberations and reports provided the basis for Science—the Endless Frontier. Because the non- medical biologists had played virtually no part in Bush’s wartime system, they felt little or no obligation to support his version of a National Research Foundation; in particular, they were much less adamant about the question of presidential control.

If Bush’s neglect of the biological sciences was an unfortunate oversight, exclusion of the social sciences was deliberate. Bush’s letter transmitting Science—the Endless Frontier to President Truman stated that “in speaking of science he [President Roosevelt] clearly had in mind the natural sciences, including biology and medicine, and I have so interpreted his questions. Progress in other fields, such as the social sciences and the humanities, is likewise important; but the program for science presented in my report warrants immediate attention.”21 The question of whether the social sciences should be explicitly mentioned as qualifying for federal research support in legislation creating the foundation was debated over the next five years, and they were excluded from the National Science Foundation Act of 1950.22

Bush and his senior colleagues believed that inclusion of the social sciences would complicate and delay formulation of a relatively straightforward compact between science and government. But their antipathy may also have been rooted in their distrust of government bureaucracies and New Deal-style planning and management. The social sciences had been instrumental in the proliferation of new agencies during the early New Deal and had legitimized the concept of planning and control at the presidential level. Since social scientists were identified with what many conservatives viewed as alarming controls on private activity, Bush and his colleagues might well have regarded their explicit inclusion in the National Research Foundation as inconsistent with the insulation of that new agency from the federal bureaucracy. A number of conservative congressmen also opposed inclusion of the social sciences on the grounds that it could lead to centralized planning by government, if not to Soviet-style regimentation.

The markedly different approach to science policy of practicing scientists and those few social scientists with any interest in that topic was also a perennial ground for distrust. Social scientists on Frederic Delano’s Science Committee of the National Resources Committee had been responsible for torpedoing the 1934 proposal of Karl Compton’s Science Advisory Committee (on one of whose committees Bush—then Dean of Engineering at MIT—had served) to support scientific research in universities. Thereafter, the social science-dominated Science Committee of that body had produced, beginning in 1938, the successive volumes of Research—a National Resource, which gave co-equal status to the social and natural sciences. The landmark Delano committee report had been the first official government document to recognize the symbiotic relationship between the federal and non-federal research enterprises and to argue that federal responsibility for science extended beyond the government’s own scientific bureaus. However, to the non-government scientific establishment, the solutions it proposed for a more coherent national science policy were overly bureaucratized and threatening to the autonomy of academic science.

The Steelman Report

During the years of debate over the National Science Foundation, a second federal science-promotion effort was under way. In October 1946, Truman issued an executive order establishing the President’s Scientific Research Board and charged it to prepare an overview of current and proposed research and development within and outside of government. The prime mover behind the executive order was probably James R. Newman, formerly of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, who had been in the vanguard of the successful battle to assure civilian control of atomic energy.23

Figure 3: President Truman and John Steelman in Key West, November 1951. Paul Begley, United States Navy, Courtesy Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.
Figure 3 (graphics3.png)

Chaired by John R. Steelman, Director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, the Scientific Research Board was comprised of the heads of all cabinet departments and other federal units with substantial research and development responsibilities. Steelman was directed to submit a report:

setting forth (1) his findings with respect to the Federal research programs and his recommendations for providing coordination and improved efficiency therein; and (2) his findings with respect to non-Federal research and development activities and training facilities, a statement of the inter-relationship of Federal and non-Federal research and development, and his recommendations for planning, administering and staffing Federal research programs to insure that the scientific personnel, training, and research facilities of the Nation are used most effectively in the national interest.24

Bush was a statutory member of the board in his capacity as OSRD Director,25 but took little or no part in its deliberations and dismissed its efforts will ill-concealed contempt on the grounds that Steelman (who had a Ph.D. in economics and had been a university professor prior to joining the government as a labor relations specialist during the late Roosevelt years) had no understanding of science. No doubt Bush, who had enjoyed easy access to Roosevelt, was also piqued by his exclusion from the inner circles of the Truman White House. Steelman, in contrast, was becoming increasingly influential. With the liquidation of the emergency Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion in December 1946, he was designated The Assistant to the President, in effect the first White House chief of staff.

But more than personal pique was involved. The thrust of Bush’s Science—the Endless Frontier was that support for basic research in universities ought to be the central focus of science policy; the Steelman board regarded university research support as just one aspect of a more complex situation. Science—the Endless Frontier was based on the reports from four committees of non-government scientists; the Steelman board was composed entirely of government officials. Bush and the scientific establishment also suspected that the Steelman board wanted to preempt military domination of post-war science policy, and that it was expected “to promote the right kind of science foundation.”26

Despite the distaste of scientific elders for the Steelman exercise, the resulting five-volume report, entitled Science and Public Policy and commonly referred to as the Steelman report, ranks as a seminal achievement. A Program for the Nation, its first volume, was transmitted to the president on August 27, 1947, exactly three weeks after his pocket veto of the National Science Foundation Act of 1947.27 Its principal recommendation was to nearly double the national (federal, plus industry and other sources) R&D budget to approximately $2.1 billion annually by 1957 through a “planned program of expansion” that would require greater increases in public than in private spending. Thenceforth, federal R&D expenditures should be equal to at least one percent of Gross National Product (GNP).28

In contrast to the Bush report, which based its few cost estimates on prewar basic research expenditures, the Steelman report explicitly recognized a link between R&D expenditures and national income.29 It also set explicit 1957 distribution targets by sector: 20 percent for basic research, 14 percent for health and medicine, 44 percent for non-military development, and 22 percent for military development. The report included charts which extrapolated desired federal R&D expenditures through 1957 and the desired numbers of scientists through that same year.

Figure 4
Figure 4 (graphics4.png)

The Bush report had recommended strengthening federal non-defense applied research programs, but paid little attention to the entire government system. In contrast, the Steelman report recognized the growing complexity and influence of the federal scientific enterprise on the entire national effort: “The Federal program for scientific research and development exerts its influence in many major areas, and it is a direct influence not only upon the scientific activities of the country as a whole, but upon the national economy. Its very scope makes the formulation of policy and administration difficult, and its operation within the structure of the Federal Government raises questions of balance in its programs.”30

In order to increase the effectiveness of the federal effort, the report recommended that: “A central point of liaison among the major research agencies to assure the maximum interchange of information...must be provided…. There must be a single point close to the President at which the most significant problems created in the research and development program of the Nation as a whole can be brought into policy discussions.”31

Science—the Endless Frontier and A Program for the Nation were in accord in singling out basic research as the principal area for concerted federal action. Indeed, the latter report recommended that the largest percentage increases in federal expenditures during the next decade should be in that area. (In contrast, it recommended that expenditures for military development ought to increase more slowly than for other sectors.) Much of its rhetorical justification for government research support was reminiscent of Science—the Endless Frontier, and no doubt drew upon it for inspiration. More concretely, A Program for the Nation proposed creation of a National Science Foundation that would have been more munificently endowed than Bush proposed.32 It was also considerably bolder in recommending “a program of Federal assistance to universities and the matters of laboratory facilities and scientific equipment,"33 and by asserting the need “to assist in the reconstruction of European laboratories “as a part of our program of aid to peace-loving countries.”34

Despite its unequivocal endorsement of government support for basic research and its broader concept of the scope and authority of a National Science Foundation, the report drew the ire of the scientific establishment by recommending that the foundation be headed by a presidentially appointed director “assisted by a part-time advisory board of distinguished scientists and educators similarly appointed.”35 Half the members of the advisory board would have been drawn from within government and half from outside. Moreover, it recommended that the foundation be established within the Executive Office of the President (EoP) rather than as an independent agency. Indeed, there was some sentiment on the Steelman board that the president should simply establish a National Science Foundation within the executive office by means of an executive order rather than having to rely on the congress to create the organization.36 Since the report’s recommendations were also opposed by the military and by conservative congressmen opposed to central planning, it went nowhere. (It is interesting to note, however, that actual R&D expenditures through the 1950s far exceeded the report’s targets.)

On September 13, 1948, President Truman addressed the centennial anniversary meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).37 In history’s first public presidential speech calling for a national science policy, Truman suggested that it be based on five key Steelman recommendations:

First, we should double our total public and private allocations of funds to the sciences….
Second, greater emphasis should be placed on basic research and on medical research.
Third, a National Science Foundation should be established.
Fourth, more aid should be granted to the universities, both for student scholarships and for research.
Fifth, the work of the research agencies of the Federal Government should be better financed and coordinated.

Science and International Relations

Scientists have long regarded international communication and cooperation as essential to the advancement of science. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, several international scientific unions were created, including the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Almost always, national academies of sciences became the adhering bodies to these organizations. In the early 1930s, the existing scientific unions created an umbrella organization, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). By the end of the twentieth century, approximately forty disciplinary scientific unions had been created under the umbrella of what had come to be called the International Council of Science.

Since the end of late 1940s, the U.S. government, along with Europe, Japan, China, and India, has regarded science as a significant part of international relations. Even prior to World War II, there was some advocacy for federal support for international scientific activities. Relation of the Federal Government to Research recommended: “International cooperation in scientific research now exists on a large scale. It could be encouraged to the great advantage of the Nation if the Federal Government would adopt the practice which is common among the Governments of other nations of according official recognition and, wherever necessary, financial support to international gatherings of scientists.”

Science—the Endless Frontier also provided a rationale for federal support of international science:

International exchange of scientific information is of growing importance. Increasing specialization of science will make it more important than ever that scientists in this country keep continually abreast of developments abroad. In addition, a flow of scientific information constitutes one facet of general international accord which should be cultivated.
The Government can accomplish significant results in several ways: by adding in the arrangement of scientific congresses, in the official accrediting of American scientists to such gatherings, in the official reception of foreign scientists of standing in this country, in making possible a rapid flow of technical information, including translation service, and possibly in the provision of international fellowships. Private foundations and other groups partially fulfill some of these functions at present, but their scope is incomplete and inadequate.38

The most significant attempt at international scientific cooperation was the Baruch Plan, presented to the United National Atomic Energy Commission on June 14, 1946, by Bernard Baruch, a New York financier and informal advisor to the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The plan was drafted under the auspices of a committee headed by David Lilienthal, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and a small group of scientists headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. It proposed worldwide sharing of nuclear technologies and strict sanctions against uncooperative nations. Specifically:

The [International Atomic Energy] Commission shall proceed with the utmost despatch and enquire into all phases of the problem, and make such recommendations from time to time with respect to them as it finds possible. In particular the Commission shall make specific proposals:
  1. For extending between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information for peaceful ends;
  1. For control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes;
  1. For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction;
  1. For effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying States against the hazards of violations and evasions. 39

With the Soviet Union’s rejection, the Baruch Plan died.

Relation of the Federal Government to Research and Science —the Endless Frontier both recommended that the federal government support US scientists’ travel to scientific meetings abroad. The Steelman report went considerably further, suggesting that science could be an effective tool of diplomacy, and recommending:

US scientists should be supported by the federal government to travel to European research facilities to assist in restoring the viability of those facilities which had been devastated by World War II;
The federal government should support foreign students to study science and engineering in US universities;
The federal government should assign competent scientists to its principal foreign embassies; and
The United States be prepared to cooperate in scientific research with non-European countries, including specifically Japan, China, and India as the developed their scientific resources and talent—and also be cognizant of the competition that this would entail.40

The Steelman report was transmitted to President Truman two months after announcement of the Marshall Plan, and thus was consistent with the administration’s vision of international cooperation.

Emergence of the Bureau of the Budget

The Steelman Report’s premise that formulation of national science policy ought to proceed from an analysis of national resources and objectives also reflected the perspective of the Bureau of the Budget (BoB), whose influence on science policy became more pronounced during the five-year National Science Foundation debate. Harold Smith, who served as BoB Director from May 1939 to June 1946, regarded the agency as the principal institutional guardian of policy. Accordingly, he sought to provide the president with sound advice on pending legislative proposals based on careful and objective staff work. As a result, Smith succeeded in building within the BoB the capability of analyzing executive and congressional proposals for their consistency both with administrative policies and the long-term, constitutional and institutional prerogatives of the presidency.41

By late 1943, it was becoming clear to Smith that the federal government would be more extensively involved with science during the postwar era. The role of the BoB would be to assure that any expanded scientific responsibilities would be integrated into the federal structure in accordance with sound principles of administrative management, including the preservation of presidential authority. Transformation of wartime government research installations to peacetime uses would obviously require advanced planning. Accordingly, Don K. Price, a protégé of Louis Brownlow’s who was detailed to the BoB from the Coast Guard and who was dispatched in 1944 to familiarize himself with the Manhattan Project installations, became the principal advocate within the BoB for civilian control of atomic energy.42

In 1944, Smith grew wary of the Research Board for National Security (RBNS) on the grounds that it would be too far removed from presidential control.43 He therefore took steps to assure that it would be quietly starved of funds. Later, he convinced Truman to withhold support for a measure introduced by Senator Harry S. Byrd (D-VA) to establish the RBNS as an independent agency on the grounds that federal science policy ought to be implemented coherently rather than piecemeal.44 In 1945 testimony before a Senate committee, Smith said, “The President, and the Bureau of the Budget in his Executive Office, need scientific advice… The proposed foundation can fulfill a valuable function in supplying such advice. It will need to be given…authority to call on the scientific bureaus of the Government for information, and the duty of making recommendations to the department heads and the president on their programs.”45

He also asserted, with respect to the organization and management of the foundation, “I feel it is my duty to keep the scientists from making a mistake in the field of public administration… An agency which is to control the spending of public funds in a great national program must be part of the regular machinery of government. If the Government is to support scientific research, it should do so through its own responsible agencies, not be delegating the control of the program and turning over the funds to any non-governmental organization.”

The tension between the BoB’s desire to establish a National Science Foundation as an essential component of the federal scientific enterprise and its concern for administrative conformity and presidential prerogatives persisted. Because of those concerns, the BoB remained closely involved in attempting to shape successive versions of NSF legislation to meet the demands of the scientific establishment, the shifting congressional leadership, and the administration itself. William D. Carey, who had come to the BoB in 1942 from Harvard’s Littauer School of Government and had been assigned to help organize the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946, emerged as the principal advocate, within the BoB, for a National Science Foundation. Possibly because of his closer association with senior scientists such as Bush and Conant on the matter of the AEC, Carey did not share his colleagues’ concern over the presidential control issue. Rather, he considered the NSF Act of 1947 workable from BoB’s perspective, despite the fact that control was to be vested in a part-time, presidentially-appointed board rather than the president himself. For that reason, he vigorously (though privately) dissented from BoB’s advice that President Truman veto the National Science Foundation Act of 1947.46

Figure 5: William D. Carey, ca. 1980. Courtesy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Figure 5 (graphics5.png)

Despite its decisive intervention in killing the 1947 legislation, the BoB remained committed to establishing a National Science Foundation. Over the next three years, Carey and Elmer Staats, among others, played important roles in negotiating successive compromises that ultimately paved the way for the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. During those years, close and enduring relations were established between the BoB and the broadly based scientific communities, particularly through the Intersociety Committee for a National Science Foundation.

By 1950, largely through the efforts of Staats and Carey, BoB had become the principal advocate for science within government, as well as guardian of such scientific prerogatives as autonomy and open communication, and such constitutional imperatives as presidential and congressional responsibility and accountability. The BoB assumed that role largely by default. In 1947, the Steelman report had recommended, “The Bureau should…continue to take initiative in the allocation of research functions among Executive agencies. The organization of the Bureau should be strengthened for a more effective performance of this function and to provide the Bureau with a means of taking an overall view of the research and development programs.”47

However, the report also noted, “The Bureau of the Budget is not and should not be charged with the task of developing a broad scientific research program for the nation.” That task, presumably, would fall within the purview of a National Science Foundation. But two years later there still was no National Science Foundation, and the BoB was reluctantly filling the resulting void.

BoB did not assume an activist role on behalf of science and government solely to achieve a workable arrangement through which government could support research in universities. From the outset, it sought to incorporate into the NSF responsibility for other functions envisioned by Science—the Endless Frontier, particularly coordination of “research programs on matters of utmost importance to the national welfare,” and formulation of “a national policy for the Government toward science.”

As President Truman recognized explicitly when he created the Steelman board, it was becoming clear as early as 1946 that government would be involved with science through a multiplicity of agencies, including such new ones as the ONR and AEC, expanded programs in old-line agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and National Bureau of Standards, the rapidly expanding National Institutes of Health, and a National Science Foundation.

By that time, the BoB had also become sufficiently converted to the principal arguments of Science—the Endless Frontier to concede that relations between science and government could prosper only if it sought advice and guidance from non-governmental scientific leadership on how to effect discipline within the de facto federal R&D budget48 and coherence within the federal research establishment. In the opinion of Carey and his colleagues, the twenty-four–member National Science Board would be the obvious entity to help in the promised formulation of a “national policy of the Government toward science” as envisioned by Science—the Endless Frontier.

The BoB may have assumed that, having taken a strong initiative to create a foundation that would support scientific research in a manner that would preserve a large measure of scientific autonomy, the National Science Foundation (particularly the National Science Board) would in turn provide direct, continuous assistance in helping coordinate the proliferating federal science and technology enterprise. But it was destined for disappointment, in part because the outbreak of the Korean War six weeks after presidential approval of the National Science Foundation Act radically changed the science policy environment in the United States. Even after 1953, when a truce had been established in Korea, Alan T. Waterman, the first NSF Director, declined to have the National Science Board exercise its congressionally mandated authority to oversee and evaluate R&D programs in agencies other than the NSF.49 A skillful Washington bureaucrat, Waterman feared that the still-small agency he headed would be crushed by the larger, more established federal R&D organizations. On March 17, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order, drafted by Carey, directing the National Science Board to carry out its congressionally mandated oversight and evaluation responsibilities.50 Waterman and the board managed to ignore this as well.


  1. New York Times (August 7, 1945).
  2. New York Times (August 8, 1945).
  3. Vannevar Bush, Science—the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation (July 1945, reprinted May 1980), 3.
  4. Author’s interview with William D. Carey, December 1986.
  5. In 1975, the Atomic Energy Commission was absorbed into the newly-created Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which also incorporated bureaus from the Departments of Commerce and the Interior. In 1977, ERDA was absorbed into the new Department of Energy (DoE).
  6. Daniel J. Kevles, “The National Science Foundation and the Debate over Postwar Research Policy, 1942-45,” Isis 68 (1977), 5-26.
  7. Bush, op. cit., 3.
  8. Ibid., 31.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 80
  11. National Science Foundation Act of 1950, Public Law 81-507 (64 Stat 149), Section 4c.
  12. This summary of the legislative history of the National Science Foundation Act is drawn primarily from J. Merton England, A Patron for Pure Science: The National Science Foundation’s Formative Years, 1945-57 (Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1983), 25-106.
  13. The $15 million limitation was removed in 1953.
  14. The use of the term “scientific community” here and elsewhere in the text is something of an oversimplification. Certainly, few social scientists were consulted during the course of the debates over the National Science Foundation. More significantly, Bush was seemingly insensitive to the fact that the biological sciences were composed of many more areas of expertise than the biomedical sciences. Thus, it is by no means clear how many scientists outside of Bush’s hard-core proponents in the mathematical, physical, and engineering scientists were even passively interested in the debates of the late 1940s.
  15. England, op. cit., 36-42.
  16. Author’s interview with Elmer Staats, January 1986.
  17. Creation of the AEC, which vested control of nuclear energy in a five-member civilian commission, represented a defeat for Bush and Conant at the hands of younger scientists who had advocated continued military control.
  18. Nathan Reingold, “Vannevar Bush’s New Deal for Research: or, The Triumph of the Old Order,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 17 (1987), 299-344.
  19. National Academy of Sciences, Federal Support of Basic Research in Institutions of Higher Learning (Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1964).
  20. Reingold, op. cit.
  21. Bush, op. cit., 1.
  22. The National Science Foundation Act of 1950 authorized the foundation “to initiate and support basic scientific research…in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, and other sciences.” The social and behavioral sciences were explicitly included in that formulation by means of a 1968 congressional amendment of the original act as a result of hearings before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
  23. England, op. cit., 63.
  24. John R. Steelman, “A Program for the Nation,” Science and Public Policy: A Report to the President 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, August 27, 1947), 69.
  25. The OSRD was liquidated at the end of 1947, much to the relief of Bush, who had originally proposed that since it was a temporary, emergency agency, it should be phased out after the end of the war in Europe.
  26. England, op. cit., 63; note 8, 375.
  27. The succeeding volumes of the report were the following: vol. 2, The Federal Research Program; vol. 3, Administration for Research; vol. 4, Manpower for Research; vol. 5, The Nation’s Medical Research.
  28. This appears to have been the first use in an official public document of the now familiar R&D/GNP (later R&D/GDP) ratio.
  29. Steelman, op. cit., 26.
  30. Steelman, op. cit., 45.
  31. Ibid., 61.
  32. Bush, op. cit., 40
  33. Ibid., 31.
  34. Ibid. The Steelman report was released during the months that Congress was debating the proposed Marshall Plan for economic recovery assistance to Europe.
  35. Ibid., 34
  36. England, op. cit., 80
  37. Harry S. Truman, “Address to the Centennial Anniversary AAAS Annual Meeting (1948),” in Albert Teich, ed., Science and Technology Policy Yearbook 1999 (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999).
  38. Bush, op. cit., 22
  40. Steelman, op. cit., 38-41
  41. Larry Berman, The Office of Management and Budget and the Presidency, 1921-1979 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1979), 13-15.
  42. Author and Trudy Solomon interview with Don K. Price, October 1981.
  43. Daniel J. Kevles, “Scientists, the Military, and the Control of Postwar Defense Research: The Case of the Research Board for National Security, 1944-46,” Technology and Culture 16, #no. (Jan. 1975), 20- 45.
  44. Despite the fact that Vannevar Bush had been instrumental in creating the defunct RBNS within the National Research Council, he also opposed Byrd’s measure, since he regarded the RBNS as a temporary expedient whose functions would ultimately be incorporated into his proposed National Research Foundation.
  45. England, op. cit., 30
  46. Ibid., 81-82.
  47. Steelman, op. cit., 63.
  48. Then as now there exists no explicit R&D budget in the sense that the president’s annual budget request to the Congress includes such a budget. Rather, the requested federal R&D budget consists of the aggregate of the requests of all federal organizations with responsibilities for R&D expenditures.
  49. In 1956, Waterman was nominated and confirmed for a second six-year term as NSF Director. As the expiration of that second term approached, he was granted a two-year extension, which required the Congress to exempt him from the statutory retirement age of 68 for federal employees.
  50. The text of this executive order appears in England, op. cit., 353- 55.

Content actions

Download module as:

Add module to:

My Favorites (?)

'My Favorites' is a special kind of lens which you can use to bookmark modules and collections. 'My Favorites' can only be seen by you, and collections saved in 'My Favorites' can remember the last module you were on. You need an account to use 'My Favorites'.

| A lens I own (?)

Definition of a lens


A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

| External bookmarks