Vannever Bush’s Sedative?


A “Sedative” for Science Policy
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Roger Pielke Jr. makes the important point that science policy is not placing enough emphasis on issues of national welfare (e.g., the environment), compared with issues that may offer more immediate benefits (e.g., medicine, information technology). However, I think he is misplacing the blame on Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier by confusing two types of scientific investigations: basic science and applied science.

Science in general is a discipline by which we try to advance our understanding of nature. We observe; we build explanations; we observe some more to check whether the explanations are satisfactory; others review and criticize our explanations and repeat the observations; eventually we build models of how nature works. The broader the agreement between models and observations, and the more completely the models have been tested, the more confidence we have in them.

The discipline is the same for basic and applied research; only the motivations are different. Basic research aims to improve our models; applied research uses the tools of science to provide answers needed for specific applications. Both are worthy enterprises, although our science professors implied that basic research is more so.

I believe the point that Bush made in his report was that the United States and Great Britain were able to convert into applications that enabled the Allies to win World War II the results of decades of basic research, performed without any concept of practical application. Although there were a few superb industrial laboratories (e.g., Bell Telephone Laboratories, General Electric Research Laboratory), it was unlikely that industry would support enough basic research in the future. The federal government needed to provide the funds for ongoing basic research, probably primarily at universities.

I think Pielke’s criticisms are valid, but they should be directed at planning and funding for applied research. We must recognize that most of what the federal government classes as “basic research” does not fit into my (or Bush’s) definition. Much of it is filling in model details needed for specific applications, which should be done as applied research in support of particular goals. We should focus on setting those goals and priorities. Global warming is a good example. The basic research has paid off: the models can be improved, but they won’t change the conclusion that countermeasures are necessary. Let’s use the skills of scientific discipline (not political controversy) to find practical solutions to the problem by applied research and engineering to develop the equipment necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emission, and learn how to remove it from the atmosphere economically.

Pielke’s use of the COVID-19 pandemic is misplaced in a discussion of basic research, although I endorse his characterization of the Trump administration response as “mind-boggling incompetence.” There is no mystery requiring basic research to explain what happened or to prevent it from happening again. South Korea, New Zealand, Iceland, and other nations knew what to do, were prepared for it, and contained the pandemic. Instead, in the United States it became a political controversy. The idea that refusing to wear a mask is required as a sign of political loyalty is worse than a dangerous fraternity initiation, which risks only the initiate. It displays blatant disregard for the rights of all who might become infected by mask-less persons who may be infectious even if they haven’t developed symptoms. Fortunately, our applied research capabilities have apparently yielded useful treatments and effective vaccines.

I believe Bush’s message is vitally important to protect the future of basic research, especially today when Congress presses for near-term applications from government funding.

Pielke’s message is also important, but it needs to be addressed to politicians and voters as well as government planners. Easy solutions would have been applied by now. Hard ones cost time, intellectual effort, patience, and money—a lot of all these. Allocating effort and money to applied research on social issues does not stimulate voter support as much as supporting research on heart disease, which could affect any of us. If we’re serious about correcting income disparity, let’s fund better education for poor districts. If we’re serious about cutting down on carbon dioxide emission, why not impose a carbon tax? We pay for disposing of our solid wastes, why not contaminating gases as well? We need applied research to develop better means to achieve our objectives, but we need to stimulate a collective willingness to pay modest costs for what we can do now—then give applied research and engineering a chance to find better (more effective and economical) means to accomplish our objectives. Meanwhile, let’s turn down the gain on those who deny well-established scientific reality because it implies the need for uncomfortable action. And let’s protect our future with an adequate budget for basic research. The United States is an innovative nation. Let’s stop arguing and start thinking instead.

Retired Consultant

Cornelia Dean places responsibility for intensive coastal development on the National Flood Insurance Program, but Roger Pielke Jr. provides deeper context for understanding dynamic challenges with coastal communities.

Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier is to science policy what the 1969 report to Congress Our Nation and the Sea is to coastal policy. The later report, a result of what is commonly known as the Stratton Commission after its chair, Julius A. Stratton, served as the foundation for many of the Nixon administration’s environmental science initiatives, including the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For many people, NOAA was seen as America’s “Wet NASA,” and it was saddled with the temerity of space exploration.

Participants in the congressional hearing to create the Stratton Commission eagerly invoked the sea as “mankind’s last frontier,” and framed basic research “in all [its] various ramifications” as a primary tool for colonization. Though the commission thought less of the frontier metaphor than did Congress, it too invoked the metaphor, arguing that NOAA would serve to “open up the marine frontier.” The shoreline was the stepping-off point for this venture, and theoretically “it could be increased almost without limit” to accommodate demand, primarily for homes.

The contribution of homeownership to the US economy can never be overstated. From construction to tourism to mortgage-backed securities to building equity for college tuitions, a large portion of economic power is attributable to housing. Additional significance is found in the assumption that wealth accumulation through property serves as an effective means of allocating an economic safety net.

Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program the year before Our Nation and the Sea was released. The program’s necessity was considered in respect to ensuring continued growth in homeownership despite damage from weather extremes. Its success was understood to be contingent on avoiding unwise land use.

Nixon placed NOAA within the Department of Commerce, underscoring the vision that its activities would serve to drive economic growth. Soon NOAA was also charged with coordinating coastal management between federal, state, and local authorities. To this end, publicly funded research on coastal risks provides governments with much-needed information.

However, if the frontier metaphor is as powerful a sedative to self-reflection as Pielke argues, it helps to explain the unabashed development of the shoreline. The metaphor also serves to free the scientific community for its role in shifting understandings of flood risk in ways that lead to instability in insurance pricing, wreaking havoc on community cohesion, and undermining efforts to maintain access to the nation’s primary form of wealth creation: homeownership.

Advancing risk science has illuminated coastal dynamics, but uncomfortably it is accompanied by grave socioeconomic consequences to which the research response is dulled by the guise of a frontier.

Debate about the National Flood Insurance Program and coastal development is about (re)negotiating the terms of social interdependence. For science to demonstrate its social value in this context, it must respond to the breakdown in shared prosperity born from fractionalization of people and space by risk science. Such an effort would embody the call to responsibility and accountability shared by Pielke and Dean.

Assistant Professor, Coastal and Ocean Policy

Department of Public and International Affairs

University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Cite this Article

“Vannever Bush’s Sedative?” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 2 (Winter 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Winter 2021