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The Debate of 1945-1950
Vannevar Bush was a leading inventor and engineer. At the outset of World War II, he obtained the strong backing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to harness the Nation's scientific resources. As head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), he organized hundreds of research projects in university and industrial laboratories. By war's end, Bush was one of the most famous scientists in the Nation. An April 3, 1944 cover story in Time magazine called him the "General of Physics." When peace came in the summer of 1945, the "general" was marshaling his troops on another front-the creation of a peacetime government agency that would replicate OSRD's success.
During the war, Bush had convinced Roosevelt that the most efficient way to use the Nation's best university researchers was to keep them on their campuses and fund them from Washington. Historically, American science was undertaken in private laboratories and self-supporting universities-in 1930 universities performed $20 million worth of privately funded research (equal to about $170 million in today's currency). But OSRD brought enormous federal support to the table. By 1943, it had awarded $90 million in university research grants.
In 1944, Roosevelt asked Bush to prepare a report on postwar arrangements for science. Bush convened four committees of leading figures, including James Conant, president of Harvard; Lee DuBridge, who ran the wartime Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lab that developed radar; Isaiah Bowman, president of Johns Hopkins University; Henry Allen Moe of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; and leaders from medical schools and private foundations. When the report was ready in May 1945, Roosevelt had died and the new president, Harry S. Truman, received it.
Science-The Endless Frontier was a manifesto for government to provide regular funding for university basic research and the education of future scientists through a single new agency. But the report stated strongly that to protect it from undue political influence, the novel enterprise had to be managed by scientists themselves. The report proposed a national research foundation run by a board of "nine Members, who should be persons not otherwise connected with the Government."
Truman thanked Bush and allowed Science-The Endless Frontier to be released without comment. Immediately, Bush arranged for Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA) to introduce a bill that would implement the report. But in fact, the President did not agree with the plan. He wanted the central science agency to have a single Director answerable to him. As Harold D. Smith, director of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB), said in hearings, "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."
Bush and his colleagues, including Bowman, took issue with Truman. Claiming to represent the voice of American science, they gathered thousands of signatures and published their letter to Truman in the New York Times. The group argued that if control was in the hands of a single, politically appointed Director, he would be unable to win over the best universities, nor guide them wisely. When a bill to create a Board-controlled Foundation passed Congress in 1947, Truman vetoed it.
The fight over competing visions of who should control the new agency dragged on. Another issue was the Foundation's national policy role. The Truman White House and Bureau of the Budget wanted the Foundation to evaluate other agency research programs and make national science policy. A report by Truman aide John Steelman in 1947, which surveyed research and development (R & D) across government, supported Truman's case. But the fast-growing AEC, ONR, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) arranged for their Congressional patrons to minimize the proposed new agency's role in prospective bills.
The compromise bill that finally passed in 1950 stated that "the Foundation shall consist of a National Science Board.and a Director," both appointed by the President to six-year terms. Truman and BOB got a Director; Bush and his colleagues got a governing Board of twenty-four-members who "shall be eminent in the fields of the basic sciences".and "selected solely on the basis of established records of distinguished service." The Board members, and not the President, would elect the Board's Chair.
The Foundation was to evaluate and correlate federal research programs and "develop and encourage the pursuit of a national policy for the promotion of basic research and education in the sciences." On May 10, 1950, at a train stop in Pocatello, Idaho, President Truman announced he had signed a new law, P.L. 81-507, that "established in the executive branch of government an independent agency to be known as the National Science Foundation."