Chapter 1:

Science and Technology in Times of Transition: the 1940s and 1990s

Presidential Statements

U.S. presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through William J. Clinton have demonstrated their recognition of the importance of science and engineering in a number of ways: through, for example, annual budget submissions to Congress, organizational initiatives designed to improve the effectiveness of the Federal Government's research and policy-making systems, and programmatic initiatives using science and engineering to advance critical items on their broad policy agenda. (See sidebar, "Major Presidential Science Policy Initiatives.") However, few presidents have given public addresses focused primarily on their science policies. The first notable exception was a speech delivered by President Truman in September 1948 during the first time of transition. Almost exactly 50 years later, in February 1998 during the current time of transition, President Clinton also delivered a public science policy address.[43] A comparison between these two speeches indicates both the endurance of several key science policy themes over the past half-century and the significant changes in emphasis that have occurred during that time.

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Harry S Truman, 1948   top

President Truman delivered his address at the opening session of the Centennial Meeting of AAAS in Washington, D.C. (Truman 1948). A report of his speech was featured the next day on a front-page article in The New York Times. Truman used the occasion to propose a national science policy whose five principal elements were drawn directly from the report Steelman published a year earlier.

First, the President called for a doubling of total national R&D expenditures over the next 10 years so that, by 1958, those expenditures would exceed $2 billion and would be equal to 1 percent of GDP, or what he referred to as national income. The occasion of President Truman's AAAS address marked the first instance in which a leading political figure proposed that U.S. national R&D investments should be gauged in terms of GDP. As it happened, by 1958, national R&D investments had far exceeded the challenge that President Truman had laid down 10 years earlier. According to official estimates, in 1948, national R&D expenditures were slightly less than 0.5 percent of GDP; by 1958, that ratio was estimated to have been 2.36 percent. Changes in the Department of Defense's accounting system during the 1948--58 period make it difficult to compare R&D expenditures over that period.[44] But it is reasonable to assume that the R&D/GDP ratio, calculated according to the prevailing accounting practices of 1948, would have been closer to 2 than to 1 percent by 1958.

When President Truman spoke to AAAS, however, he could not have foreseen two of the principal reasons for the spectacular increases in national R&D expenditures that were to occur during the next decade: first, a rapid growth in defense R&D following the invasion of South Korea in June 1950; second, substantial increases for basic research and space-related R&D following the launching of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union in October 1957. Federal expenditures increased from $625 million in 1948 to $6.8 billion in 1958 ($5.4 billion in 1948 constant dollars). But Federal expenditures alone did not account for all the increase that occurred during the decade after President Truman's speech. During that same decade, industrial R&D investments rose from an estimated $450 million to approximately $3.7 billion in 1958, almost $3.0 billion in 1948 constant dollars (NSF 1998, 82--93, table B-6).

The second element of President Truman's proposed science policy was to place greater emphasis on basic research and medical research. Today, there exists a strong bipartisan consensus that both categories of research need to be adequately supported, even though they are rarely linked as explicitly as in President Truman's AAAS address.

The third element of President Truman's proposed science policy—that a National Science Foundation should be established—was, of course, accomplished 21 months later when, on May 10, 1950, he signed the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 into law.

The fourth element—that more aid should be granted to universities, for both student scholarships and research facilities—indicated recognition by the administration of the importance of universities to the national research enterprise. Concerns about the World War II human resources deficit discussed in both Science—The Endless Frontier and —Science and Public Policy no doubt underlay President Truman's call for more scholarships. Today, concerns about human resources for science and engineering focus on the composition and distribution of highly trained personnel across disciplines and sectors, while the need to provide adequate facilities for university research remains a perenial issue.

As the fifth and final element of his proposed science policy, President Truman stressed the need for better coordination of the work of the Federal research agencies, reflecting the desire of BoB for assistance in maintaining better oversight of the burgeoning Federal R&D enterprise. That concern began to be addressed in April 1951 when President Truman established the SAC/ODM, a body that enjoyed some access to the President and that, in November 1957, was elevated into the PSAC by President Eisenhower.

Having enumerated these elements of his proposed science policy, the President devoted the remainder of his speech to some of the major national needs that U.S. science was being called upon to address, as well as the support that science required in order to address those needs. In 1948, Cold War tensions were rapidly escalating. Not surprisingly, then, the President focused sharply on the obligations of U.S. science to continue to support national security objectives. Significantly, he singled out what he called "pure—or fundamental—research" as an area of the highest importance to the country's long-term national defense requirements.

The President suggested that the Federal Government had two obligations in connection with the U.S. research system: first, to see that the system received adequate funds and facilities; second, to ensure that scientists were provided with working environments where research progress was possible. Regarding the second of these obligations, he stressed that, "pure research is arduous, demanding, and difficult. It requires intense concentration, possible only when all the faculties of the scientist are brought to bear on a problem, with no disturbances or distractions." He went on to urge that, to the greatest extent possible, the pursuit of research should be insulated from day-to-day political concerns.

Near the conclusion of his address, President Truman spoke about the need for greater public awareness of the importance of research to the Nation:

The knowledge that we have now is but a fraction of the knowledge we must get, whether for peaceful use or for national defense. We must depend on intensive research to acquire the further knowledge we need ... These are truths that every scientist knows. They are truths that the American people need to understand (Truman 1948, 14).

New knowledge requirements, he emphasized, must encompass all disciplines:

The physical sciences offer us tangible goods; the biological sciences, tangible cures. The social sciences offer us better ways of organizing our lives. I have high hopes, as our knowledge in these fields increases, that the social sciences will enable us to escape from those habits and thoughts which have resulted in so much strife and tragedy (Truman 1948, 15).

"Now and in the years ahead," he concluded, "we need, more than anything else does, the honest and uncompromising common sense of science. When more of the peoples of the world have learned the ways of thought of the scientist, we shall have better reason to expect lasting peace and a fuller life for all."

William J. Clinton, 1998  top

On February 13, 1998, during the current time of transition, President Clinton addressed AAAS at its 150th anniversary meeting in Philadelphia (Clinton 1998). As might have been expected, President Clinton made explicit reference to his predecessor's speech as a means for highlighting the revolutionary changes that had occurred as a result of advances in science and engineering during the intervening half-century. That two of his references were to fields that did not even exist in President Truman's day—namely, space science and information technology—provides one measure of the scope of those changes.

President Clinton's speech touched on many of the issues that President Truman had raised 50 years earlier, although with strikingly different emphases. President Truman's first point was that total national R&D investments should be doubled, reflecting Science and Public Policy's contention that the overall level of those investments was inadequate to the broad needs of the Nation. By contrast, President Clinton was able to remind his audience that the FY 1999 budget proposal that he had recently submitted to Congress included substantial increases for most of the principal Federal research agencies.[45]

President Truman had linked basic research with medical research in urging that greater emphasis be given to both. President Clinton spoke more broadly about an expanded commitment to discovery. In noting advances that had occurred in health research, he reminded his audience that these advances had depended upon progress in a wide range of science and engineering fields.

Both presidents spoke about the conditions required for the conduct of high quality research. But where President Truman focused on insulating research from short-term political issues, President Clinton stressed the need for a long-term, stable funding environment.

Perhaps the most telling contrast between the two speeches was with the specific emphases placed on the national objectives that research should serve. President Truman spoke at length about science, engineering, and national security, which was appropriate in a year in which Cold War tensions were markedly increasing. However, the national security theme was entirely absent from President Clinton's speech. Rather, his emphasis was on the economy, the environment, and quality of life. President Clinton also spoke about social responsibility, noting that "it is incumbent upon both scientists and public servants to ensure that science serves humanity always, and never the other way around." As an example, he referred to ethical problems associated with advances in biotechnology, a reference that President Truman could not possibly have made, since the structure of the DNA molecule, a prerequisite for modern, molecular-based biotechnology, was not to be discovered until 1953.

A good deal of President Truman's speech had to do with the obligations of the Federal Government toward science; in contrast, President Clinton emphasized the need for strengthened partnerships between science and other national sectors.

Both presidents touched on the public understanding of science: President Truman stressing the need for Americans to understand the special needs of research; President Clinton, the need to increase public awareness of the promise of science for the future.

Both Presidents Truman and Clinton concluded their remarks by looking toward futures that appeared very different in 1948 and 1998. President Truman's optimism was guarded, reflecting the still fresh memories of World War II and the uncertainties inherent in the deepening Cold War. In contrast, President Clinton's concluding remarks, which linked advances in knowledge with fundamental American values, were buoyant:

I believe in what you do. And I believe in the people who do it. Most important, I believe in the promise of America, in the idea that we must always marry our newest advances and knowledge with our oldest values, and that when we do that, it's worked pretty well. That is what we must bring to the new century (Clinton 1998, 10).


[43] President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the appointment of a full-time science advisor in a national radio address on November 7, 1957. President John F. Kennedy made a major science policy address at the Centennial celebration of NAS on October 23, 1963 (NAS 1963). President James E. Carter spoke at NAS on April 23, 1979, on the occasion of its annual meeting (Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 1979).

[44] Beginning in FY 1953, the Department of Defense began to include salaries and related expenses of personnel engaged in R&D in its estimates of R&D expenditures, resulting in an increase of approximately $1 billion in its estimated R&D expenditures between FY 1952 and FY 1953 (NSF 1968, 221, note c).

[45] Budget of the United States Government for Fiscal Year 1999, p. 93--104.

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