Chapter 1:

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


Current Visions/Key Policy Documents


Science in the National Interest (1994)   top

The concept of a National Science Foundation began to take shape in 1944, near the end of a period in which national defense had dominated the Nation's agenda. Only a handful of visionaries in science and government understood that a well-articulated policy would be required in order for the Nation to derive optimum peacetime benefits from science and engineering.

As the 1990s opened, the United States faced the novel challenge of redefining its goals and priorities in the post-Cold War era. By then, the importance of science and engineering to the United States had been firmly established. Indeed, they had assumed a significance that the visionaries of the 1940s probably could not have anticipated. Implementation of the recommendations of Science-The Endless Frontier and Science and Public Policy, which their authors had assumed would occur in a time of peace, actually took place during a period when national defense considerations once again dominated the national agenda. Thus, with the Cold War over, it was useful to rearticulate the importance of science and engineering to the Nation and redefine their roles in an era in which social and economic concerns were destined to increase in importance relative to national security concerns.

The organization of science and technology within the Federal Government also evolved during the Cold War era in response to changing political, economic, and social circumstances. In May 1976, the U.S. Congress, with the encouragement of President Gerald R. Ford, created the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) within the Executive Office of the President, in effect reconstituting the Office of Science and Technology (OST), which had been created by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and abolished by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973. The National Science and Technology Policy, Organization and Priorities Act of 1976 also provided for an external presidential committee analogous to PSAC, which President Nixon abolished at the time he abolished OST. This provision was finally implemented in 1989 when D. Allan Bromley, the President's Assistant for Science and Technology, convinced President George Bush to establish the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In a coordinated action, Bromley reinvigorated the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET), a body consisting of the heads of all U.S. Government agencies with significant science and technology responsibilities. In 1993, President Clinton expanded the membership of FCCSET to include the heads of appropriate agencies within the Executive Office of the President, renaming it the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).

In 1994, 50 years after Senator Harley Kilgore (D-WV) introduced his first bill to create a National Science Foundation and President Roosevelt requested advice from Vannevar Bush on the organization of science in the post-World War II era, the OSTP, in cooperation with the leading Federal science and technology agencies, convened a Forum on Science in the National Interest at NAS. Approximately 200 individuals from academia, industry, professional societies, and government participated in this event, suggesting the current breadth and reach of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. Science in the National Interest, published in August 1994, summarized its results (Clinton and Gore 1994).

The organization of the forum on Science in the National Interest, and the auspices under which it was convened, exemplified some of the important changes that had occurred in the status of science during the previous 50 years-in part as a result of recommendations made during the first period of transition. Science-The Endless Frontier was based upon the private deliberations of four ad hoc committees of prominent scientists convened to respond to a November 1944 letter from President Roosevelt. Science and Public Policy was prepared by a handful of mid-level staff within the Executive Office of the President, who consulted with colleagues in other Federal agencies and augmented their work by means of commissioned reports from nongovernment organizations. One of its recommendations was to establish a mechanism to bring important science policy issues to the attention of the highest levels of government.

OSTP, which convened the January 31--February 1, 1994, forum, was created to ensure that important science policy issues would, in fact, receive attention at the highest levels of the Federal Government. The fact that that agency even existed and was able to bring together approximately 200 individuals broadly representative of the Nation's science and engineering interests to articulate a vision for the future rather than relying on a group of select committees or staff within the Federal agencies suggests the changed social context in which science policy is viewed since the first time of transition.

Although the key documents of the 1940s argued persuasively that investments in science would yield significant benefits, they offered no specific, detailed examples. In contrast, Science in the National Interest included a variety of one-page, illustrated descriptions of benefits derived from those investments.

The most striking example of an advance that has occurred as a result of research investments was the simple, almost taken-for-granted fact that the entire text of Science in the National Interest was made available by way of the Internet, a development that even visionaries who predicted the bright future of information and communications technologies could not have dreamed of 50 years ago.

Science in the National Interest noted explicitly that its preparation did, in fact, occur during a time of transition. After paying its respects to the visionaries of the late 1940s, its second chapter, entitled "A Time of Transition," went on to articulate the new context in which national science policy must be formulated:

The end of the Cold War has transformed international relationships and security needs. Highly competitive economies have emerged in Europe and Asia, putting new stresses on our private sector and on employment. The ongoing information revolution both enables and demands new ways of doing business. Our population diversity has increased, yielding new opportunities to build on a traditional American strength. Health and environmental responsibility present increasingly complex challenges, and the literacy standards for a productive and fulfilling role in twenty-first century society are expanding beyond the traditional "three R's" into science and technology (Clinton and Gore 1994, 3).

The report then suggested a framework for national science policy in terms of five goals regarded as essential to permit the U.S. scientific and engineering enterprise to address essential national objectives:

  1. Maintain leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge.
  2. Enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals.
  3. Stimulate partnerships that promote investments in fundamental science and engineering and effective use of physical, human and financial resources.
  4. Produce the finest scientists and engineers for the twenty-first century.
  5. Raise scientific and technological literacy of all Americans (Clinton and Gore 1994, 7).

While stressing the desirability of reexamining and reshaping U.S. science policy, Science in the National Interest also emphasized that the core values that have enabled the Nation to achieve so much should be kept clearly in view. A strong commitment to investigator-initiated research and merit review based on evaluation by scientific peers should be regarded as foremost among those core values.

Unlocking Our Future (1998)   top

In October 1945, the U.S. Senate convened hearings on proposed legislation to create a National Science Foundation that involved a large number of witnesses from different sectors of the science and engineering enterprise, from education associations, BoB, and several old-line executive branch scientific bureaus. These and other, subsequent congressional hearings on issues such as control of nuclear energy or research in the military departments were instrumental in focusing widespread public attention on the importance of science and engineering in the postwar era. They also initiated a tradition of sustained congressional interest and attention to U.S. science policy. (See sidebar, "Congressional Science Policy Hearings and Studies.")


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Following that tradition, on February 17, 1997, the Speaker of the House of Representatives acknowledged the need to reexamine the assumptions underlying U.S. science policy by requesting that the House Science Committee undertake a special study. Accordingly, Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), a Ph.D. physicist and former college professor, was asked to lead a Committee study of "the current state of the Nation's science and technology policies" and to outline "a framework for an updated national science policy that can serve as a policy guide to the Committee, Congress, and the Nation" (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 6). The full Science Committee held seven hearings in order to obtain inputs for the study. In addition, Committee members and staff met with individuals and groups interested in reexamining U.S. science policy. Finally, the Committee took advantage of advances in information and communications technology by establishing a Web site to elicit comments and suggestions from the public, and the report itself was first made available to the public with the use of the Internet. The Committee successfully completed its work with the release of the report, entitled Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy-which was first made available to the public by way of the Internet-on September 24, 1998.

The Ehlers study was guided by a vision statement, which also provided the foundation for its report, namely, "The United States of America must maintain and improve its pre-eminent position in science and technology in order to advance human understanding of the universe and all it contains, and to improve the lives, health, and freedom of all peoples" (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 7).

Unlocking Our Future noted that three basic components of the scientific enterprise needed to be strengthened to ensure that this vision would be realized:

First, . . .we must ensure that the well of scientific discovery does not run dry, by facilitating and encouraging advances in fundamental research;

Second, we must see that . . . discoveries from this well must be drawn continually and applied to the development of new products or processes, to solutions for societal or environmental challenges, or simply used to establish the foundation for further discoveries;

Finally, we must strengthen both the education we depend upon to produce the diverse array of people who draw from and replenish the well of discovery, as well as the lines of communication between scientists and engineers and the American people (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 12).

The report went on to discuss these components in considerable detail in terms of themes and issues that, along with those articulated in Science in the National Interest, provide a useful counterpoint to the themes and issues set forth in the key documents of the first time of transition.

Themes and Issues   top

Science in Service to Society top

Because the objective of both Science in the National Interest and Unlocking Our Future was to reexamine science policy in a changing economic, political, and social context, both laid considerable emphasis on science in service to society. Science in the National Interest asserted that "We must reexamine and reshape our science policy both to sustain America's preeminence in science and to facilitate the role of science in the broader national interest" (Clinton and Gore 1994, 3).

Both reports emphasized the importance of research to health, economic prosperity, national security, environmental responsibility, and improved quality of life, as well as its contribution to the general culture. Unlocking Our Future also stressed the importance of science and engineering results to decisionmaking:

We believe this role for science will take on increasing importance, particularly as we face difficult decisions related to the environment. Accomplishing this goal will require, among other things, the development of research agendas aimed at analyzing and resolving contentious issues, and will demand closer coordination among scientists, engineers, and policymakers (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 5).

Research Investments top

Both reports acknowledged the indispensable role that Federal research investments play in maintaining the preeminence of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise and tacitly assumed that a broad bipartisan consensus to maintain that support would persist. According to Science in the National Interest,

To fulfill our responsibility to future generations by ensuring that our children can compete in the global economy, we must invest in the scientific enterprise at a rate commensurate with its growing importance to society. That means we must provide physical infrastructure that facilitates world class research, including access to cutting-edge scientific instrumentation and to world-class information and communication systems (Clinton and Gore 1994, 1).

Unlocking Our Future emphasized that:

Science-including understanding-driven research, targeted basic research, and mission-directed research-must be given the opportunity to thrive, as it is the precursor to new and better understanding, products and processes. The Federal investment in science has yielded stunning payoffs. It has spawned not only new products, but also entire industries (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 4).

Character of the Research System top

Both reports agreed that, although adequate Federal support would continue to be essential to the science and engineering enterprise and would almost certainly continue to be forthcoming, its level would continue to be constrained. Therefore, it would be necessary to establish priorities for Federal support, taking into account the current and future character of the research system and its ability to contribute to societal goals. Unlocking Our Future stressed the need to take into account the entire Federal Government science and technology system, including the mission agencies, in determining priorities for Federal investments: "Research within Federal government agencies and departments ranges from purely basic knowledge-driven research, to targeted basic research, applied research and, in some cases, even product development" (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 16).

Unlocking Our Future also recognized the indispensable and increasingly important role of private industry both as supporter and performer of research. However, both reports emphasized the centrality of universities to the entire U.S. research enterprise. Science in the National Interest asserted that:

A significant fraction of research, particularly fundamental research, is performed at academic institutions. This has multiple benefits. Research and education are linked in an extremely productive way. The intellectual freedom afforded academic researchers and the constant renewal brought by successive generations of inquisitive young minds stimulate the research enterprise (Clinton and Gore 1994, 7).

The increasing importance of multidisciplinary research, particularly as a basis for addressing national goals, was also emphasized by both reports.

Human Resources for Science and Engineering top

Both reports assigned a high priority to human resources as an integral element of science policy. Science in the National Interest stated that "The challenges of the twenty-first century will place a high premium on sustained excellence in scientific research and education. We approach the future with a strong foundation" (Clinton and Gore 1994, 2). An adequate education for the 21st century requires greater flexibility, particularly at the graduate school level. Unlocking Our Future asserted that "While continuing to train scientists and engineers of unsurpassed quality, the higher education process should allow for better preparation of students who plan to seek careers outside of academia by increasing flexibility in graduate training programs" (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 42).

Both reports agreed that science education at all levels, including adequate science education for nonspecialists, was essential to the national interest. According to Unlocking Our Future, "Not only must we ensure that we continue to produce world-class scientists and engineers, we must also provide every citizen with an adequate grounding in science and math if we are to give them an opportunity to succeed in the technology-based world of tomorrow-a lifelong learning proposition" (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 5).

Partnerships top

Preparation of both reports involved the active participation of individuals and groups with interests in the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. Appropriately, then, both emphasized the importance of partnerships in maintaining the vitality of the enterprise and strengthening its links with society. Unlocking Our Future took special note of the fact that:

The science policy described herein outlines not only possible roles for Federal entities such as Congress and the Executive branch, but also implicit responsibilities of other important players in the research enterprise, such as States, universities and industry. We believe such a comprehensive approach is warranted given the highly interconnected relationships among the various players in the science and technology enterprise (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 11).

More broadly,

Each member of society plays an important part in the scientific enterprise. Whether a chemist or a first-grade teacher, an aerospace engineer or machine shop worker, a patent lawyer or medical patient, we all should possess some degree of knowledge about, or familiarity with, science and technology if we are to exercise our individual roles effectively (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 36).

Science in the National Interest noted that:

Science advances the national interest and improves our quality of life only as part of a larger enterprise. Today's science and technology enterprise is more like an ecosystem than a production line. Fundamental science and technological advances are interdependent, and the steps from fundamental science to the marketplace or to the clinic require healthy institutions and entrepreneurial spirit across society (Clinton and Gore 1994, 8).

Accountability top

Because the overall objective of both reports was to examine the changing character of science and engineering in a rapidly changing social, economic, and political context, both laid considerable emphasis on public accountability. Science in the National Interest asserted the accountability theme simply and concisely at the outset: "The principal sponsors and beneficiaries of our scientific enterprise are the American people. Their continued support, rooted in the recognition of science as the foundation of a modern knowledge-based technological society, is essential" (Clinton and Gore 1994, 1). However, obtaining and maintaining broad public support, as Unlocking Our Future emphasized, requires the active engagement of individuals from several types of institution:

Whether through better communication among scientists, journalists, and the public, increased recognition of the importance of mission-directed research, or methods to ensure that, by setting priorities, we reap ever greater returns on the research investment, strong ties between science and society are paramount. Re-forging those ties with the American people is perhaps the single most important challenge facing science and engineering in the near future (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 5).

International Dimensions top

Both reports emphasized that cognizance of the international dimensions of research would be essential in formulating an adequate national science policy for the 21st century. Unlocking Our Future recognized that international collaborations are among the many types of partnership that individual scientists and engineers require to work effectively: "Although science is believed by many to be a largely individual endeavor, it is in fact often a collaborative effort. In forging collaborations, scientists often work without concern for international boundaries. Most international scientific collaborations take place on the level of individual scientists or laboratories" (U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee 1998, 21).

Science in the National Interest emphasized the importance of the international dimensions of science both to the U.S. research enterprise and to U.S. national interests more broadly:

The nature of science is international, and the free flow of people, ideas, and data is essential to the health of our scientific enterprise. Many of the scientific challenges, for example in health, environment, and food, are global in scope and require on-site cooperation in many other countries. In addition to scientific benefits, collaborative scientific and engineering projects bring Nations together thereby contributing to international understanding, good will, and sound decision-making worldwide (Clinton and Gore 1994, 8).




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