For Uncle Sam, a Revised Role in Science and Technology
Vannevar Bush's landmark report of 1945, "Science - The Endless Frontier," was a path-breaking effort that established the basic orientation of federal science policy. Since half a century has passed, an update is in order. The policy environment in which Mr. Bush's report was prepared was so different from today. The federal government had no science policy.
Up to that time, the history of federal support of science had been incidental. Although substantial government outlays were made for specific projects, no federal agency was given the mandate to promote science generally. The assistance provided was always through a specialized agency devoted to another function, such as helping farmers.
Bush's fundamental contribution was something we now take for granted. He set out to convince the federal government to take on a major new responsibility for expanding scientific knowledge in order to benefit the society in important ways, civilian and military. In retrospect, a different approach might have been taken. It could have been decided that the nation's decentralized educational system and business enterprises should determine how much scientific activity they would finance and conduct. This alternate approach likely would have resulted in less spending on science and technology over the past 50 years, with the private sector taking on a major portion, but not all, of the public sector's funding role.
Despite its shortcomings, Bush's report must get very high marks for its strategic value in developing widespread public and government interest in promoting science - as well as new technology. In its fundamentals, the report surely has been a great success. Looking back over the past half century, the Bush report strongly influenced Congress to establish the National Science Foundation specifically and to be generous in financing R&D generally.
The notion that the health of the economy as well as the strength of the nation's defenses require new scientific knowledge has been validated repeatedly in the time since Bush's report. In the civilian sphere, a striking positive relationship exists between the level of technology used in an industry and its ability to create new jobs - and thus contribute to economic progress.
The high-tech industries have been the key growth areas of the economy, generating a large share of the "good," high-paying jobs available to the American work force. Our foreign trade in high-tech products - unlike the rest of the economy - has produced trade surpluses year after year.
Nevertheless, the role of government today in the promotion of science and technology is reminiscent of the incompetent motorist with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake.
Whether by design or default, government continues to place tax and regulatory obstacles in the way of successful commercialization of the results of R&D. In doing so, it also discourages potential private sector sponsors and supporters of science and technology.
These issues should be faced by fundamentally rethinking the place of science and technology in public policy. The tremendous reductions in the military budget, which has been the largest source of federal funding of R&D, underscore the need for such a review.
The government needs to take on a more modest but still vital role - to shift from being the prime financier and sponsor of R&D to creating the political and economic environment in which the private sector will be encouraged to take on that vital task.
But even as we give full weight to its shortcomings, we must acknowledge the unique contributions of Vannevar Bush's effort. Surely, for a product of less than eight months from start to finish, "Science - The Endless Frontier" set a standard for the effective completion of a successful government project that has rarely if ever been equaled.
* Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.