Episode 10: Creating a “High-Minded Enterprise”: Vannevar Bush and Postwar Science Policy

Vannevar Bush is a towering figure in US science and technology policy. A science adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman during and after World War II, he mobilized the US research community in support of the war effort and was a major figure in the creation of the National Science Foundation.

Although his influence on the history and institutions of US science and technology is unparalleled, the full breadth of Bush’s thinking remains underappreciated today. We talk with writer and educator G. Pascal Zachary, Bush’s biographer and editor of a new collection of his writings, about this remarkable polymath, the background behind his landmark report, Science, the Endless Frontier, and his surprising legacy for the information age.

  • An excerpt from a 1955 letter Vannevar Bush wrote to employees and supporters of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, featured in the Winter 2022 Issues: “Faith & Science
  • The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush, edited by G. Pascal Zachary
  • Beyond the Endless Frontier”: a series of essays examining Vannevar Bush’s legacy and evaluating the best path forward for science’s ability to deliver societal benefits


Jason Lloyd: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a publication of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University, and we feature new essays most days on our website at issues.org. I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues. On this episode, we’re in conversation with Gregg Pascal Zachary about Vannevar Bush, who was the key advisor to presidents Roosevelt and Truman during and after World War II and a leading figure in the creation of the National Science Foundation. Bush’s influence on the history and institutions of US science and technology is unrivaled, and his thinking and insights are still relevant for today’s science policy. Gregg Zachary is the author of Endless Frontier, the biography of Vannevar Bush, and is also the editor of a new book, The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush, published in February by Columbia University Press. Gregg, thank you for joining us today.

Gregg Pascal Zachary: Glad you invited me.

Lloyd: Near the end of World War II, President Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush to create a report outlining what US science should look like after the war. This report became pivotal to how the federal government funds basic research in the United States. So could you tell us about that report? Which was called Science, the Endless Frontier.

Zachary: The creation of Science, the Endless Frontier, occurs simultaneously to Bush being on a committee to decide whether to use the A-bomb and against what targets. So this is important because it lends a sense of urgency to the idealistic aspects of Science, the Endless Frontier, because Bush knows the report will be delivered about the same time as the bomb is used, or at least tested. Because there was no question about whether to test the bomb. The Trinity test in mid July, that was going to happen even if they had decided not to use the bomb. That was going to happen for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which that having spent $2 billion on the project—they wanted to know if it worked. So Bush is under a lot of pressure. He thinks to create a report that shows science as positive and humane because he knows if those A-bomb are used, science is going to get blamed.

And so he stresses how science can promote national welfare and also health. And there was a National Cancer Institute formed in ’37. But up to that point, there was no concerted research on health. Bush had the experience in World War II of the mass production of penicillin in which he brought together Merck and other major performer companies, and simply said to them, “You’re not getting any patents out of this. We’re not going to allow that. You had better just work together because we’ve got too many people dying, especially in the Pacific, from lack of antibiotics, from lack of penicillin.” Penicillin had been discovered, but it was very hard to use. It was hard to move. So he had the experience of mass production of penicillin as an achievement that he was very proud of. And you see that’s in the report a lot.

That’s his key thing—and then prosperity. Why prosperity? Why is science going to help prosperity? Because two reasons: one, many serious people during the thirties until the verge of World War II insisted—we’re talking people in Congress, economists, others—that the depression was caused by too much innovation, too much automation, too much investment in production infrastructure. And then second, nearly everyone assumed that at the end of World War II, the depression would continue. And so Bush also stresses and emphasizes that science and research will deliver economic benefits, even though he does not have any actual evidence or a process in which to derive this conclusion. He’s just hoping that it does this. So the two major things in the report are in the back of his mind that are related to A) the depression and B) the atomic bomb, which he knew would darken feelings about science.

Then he had a third motivation, very important. He had enlisted in his enterprise hundreds and thousands of scientists to work on military projects, some to leave their homes and some from their university purchase. And he was quite insistent that these people deserved a reward for their efforts. And at the time ,scientists were paid about what high school teachers were paid. They were paid what a policeman was paid. They were paid poorly, and he saw no reason for that to continue. So he wanted a lot of money for scientists. And then the beneficiaries of that, where the downstream of that was, it would draw more people into science. Higher salaries for scientists would mean people would start going into it because he was insistent, privately and publicly, that Americans had depended highly on Europeans for science. And I think that’s undeniable. And he was wondering, we’re not going to get the Europeans again, are we? So when are we going to start doing stuff?

And this was very appealing because American universities were relatively small and there was a large potential to expand education to include the best high school students, at least. So he has these three temporal motivations that people repeatedly misunderstand or ignore when looking at Science, the Endless Frontier. He knows the bomb is coming. He witnessed the test. Before the report comes out he has witnessed the test. He and [James B.] Conant took a train or somehow they got to the desert in New Mexico and waited on the floor and watched what happened. And second, the palpable fears that the economy would collapse again without the deficit spending of war. So that if science and engineering and technological innovation could be part of the solution, or the defenses against the resumption of the depression, well, that would be welcome.

And let me just say one last thing that is always ignored—by people in the academy and by people in academia—the initial concept for the National Research Foundation, which later becomes the National Science Foundation, is equal emphasis on military research. Bush saw military research as the engine for this research community. And that ends up getting hived off. And in the five years between the Science, the Endless Frontier report and the legislation that’s enacted in 1950 to create the National Science Foundation, the military uses that time, particularly the Office of Naval Research especially, to gain a dominant role in funding of physics, chemistry, physical sciences, things like that. And so that undercuts the role of the National Science Foundation, but not of Bush’s own agenda. Because his first job under Truman is to be in charge of military research through the new Department of Defense, formed in 1947.

So a lot of the reasons that the Science, the Endless Frontier is misunderstood, say in the recent addition that Rush Holt, former Congress member prepared for Princeton, it’s all about science. Well, in fact, very little of that report is about funding of civilian science. It is really about linking research to national security, linking research to economic prosperity in the sense that the depression had to be stalled the resumption of it. And then third, medical advances, because it was clear that the experience with penicillin made Bush and George Merck realize that there was a big upside. And of course, as we know, the 1950s, there was an enormous outpouring of vaccines, right? So I think that Science, the Endless Frontier morphed into a talismanic statement for academic scientists and civilian scientists generally. And this is especially after Sputnik, of course, the late fifties, and to this day.

Lloyd: So one of the things that Science, the Endless Frontier is famous for is this idea of having free minds have free reign over their curiosity and pursuing the research that they’re interested in doing. And one of the things that I’m curious about is the tension there between that idea that has sort of famously come down to us as the role of funders should not be telling scientists what to do or how to conduct their research. But that seems almost in direct opposition to what actually Vannevar Bush was doing during World War II in directing these research programs with specific purposes in mind, that would then be used by the military and the war.

Zachary: Yes. And so I would throw that his insistence in freedom of inquiry in particular, as opposed to unfettered research, but freedom of inquiry in the basket of rewards to scientists for their work on behalf of the nation. And second, to his adherence to not the linear model as such, but his notion that there was scientific seed corn. That’s present in the Science, the Endless Frontier report, this notion that we had used up all this scientific capital and we had to rebuild it. But that rebuilding process, that commitment to freedom of inquiry and pure research was, in his mind, going to happen alongside applied research, applied engineering, and focus on military problems.

They were going to happen alongside each other. And he was mindful that the US was initially after the war going to be constrained by the numbers of scientists, that they needed to grow this quite a bit. But you’re right, this is a paradox, and it’s why I think many academic and senior science statesmen and stateswomen and administrators have tended to screen out the other part of Bush’s thinking, because what they’re interested in is this freedom of inquiry and unfettered research.

Now with that said, the character of the research contract, which was Bush’s key technical innovation, implied that scientists would not be punished for failing. You were required to provide an honest effort, but if you didn’t succeed, you were still getting paid. And I think that while that’s not the same as unfettered inquiry, it does bleed into scientists got to make the decisions over the direction of their research because they didn’t have to fear are failing. They were going to get paid anyway.

Lloyd: And the other factor that seems relevant for how easy it is to kind of ignore that other aspect of the report is that we have, actually in the issue that we’re publishing the excerpt in, a piece from Bill Bonvillian, who writes about debates between Bush and John Steelman over what ultimately the NSF would look like. And Steelman, in a lot of important ways, kind of won that fight, resulting in a bit of a weaker, more decentralized system where there was a lot of research happening at agencies rather than all being centralized at the NSF. And so it becomes very easy to take from that report “unfettered research” and ignore the parts where he wanted a very centralized system where the federal government was, under the ages of the NSF, doing 90% of the funding of scientists in the United States.

Zachary: Yeah. Steelman is an interesting figure, and his own report is worth looking at. It didn’t look to Truman or Steelman like they had won. What happened that they did win was Bush had insisted that a committee of scientists would decide who’s the director of the National Research Foundation, that the NSF would be run by a person the scientists chose. Truman vetoed the bill for that reason, and that reason alone. I think what Steelman represented was a realization among democratic political leaders, initially Kilgore, but also Steelman was an aid to Truman, was that much of the United States, or nearly all of it, was not received any of these funds. And so Irvin Stewart, who was one of Bush’s key administrators at OSRD, he becomes president of the University of West Virginia. Well, West Virginia wanted money for research. And so there was a lot of pressure to spread this around more.

And then the other thing was Steelman wanted a more explicit understanding of public purpose, but in the wind up, we never saw that from Truman. You really don’t see that until the sixties. But I do think that Steelman is one of the challengers to the World War II generation. He’s a lawyer, not a scientist. And I think that he wants to normalize in a political sense, in an administrative sense science funding research fund. And I think his report is very interesting.

So Science, the Endless Frontier cements Bush’s public association with a high-minded enterprise that he wants science to be perceived as, because immediately after the A-bomb, and especially after some public statements by Oppenheimer himself, that suggested great regret, and by Einstein, who famously said he wished he’d never gone into physics after this (and of course he greatly regretted that letter). This bogs down the scientific community in the United States for quite a while, and having a balance on the scales of a high-minded enterprise that’s trying to promote human welfare, material progress. That was very important. And it remains important to this day. To this day, the militarization of American science is not small and it is continually a point of some tension.

Lloyd: You’re the editor of The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush. So can you talk a little bit about some of the other writing that he did?

Zachary: The second most important piece of writing is “As We May Think,” published in July, the same month that Science, the Endless Frontier is published. And in the introduction to Science, the Endless Frontier, Bush actually says, “I wrote this introduction.” “As We May Think” is an essay about a revolution in information that Bush anticipates, engendered by computers and aiming to reduce what Bush calls “mental drudgery.” That he sees mechanical means to liberate the mind or ease the burden on the mind that are comparable to the mechanical means that are easing the burden on the body. This is one of the most reprinted, talked about essays in the history of the Atlantic Monthly. The editor of the magazine at the time was the legendary Edward Weeks, who was very impressed with Bush’s thinking but also his writing. And this is the first time that a working scientist in the United States writes a widely read piece.

And it begins a process by which Bush becomes known, to an extent, as a science writer. To me, one of the reasons I did the book is because his writings remain striking, and it is hard to think of an American. Now, the British scientists, they did have a lot of writers—Whitehead, you go back to Charles Darwin, Arthur Edington, any number of people; they had a bunch of scientists that wrote popular works. But it was not done in the United States. And Bush always paid attention to the perils of innovation as embodied in the bomb. He was very focused in a number of writings, which are collected in the book (about eight of them), about the rise of computation and the revolution of information, how we store information, how we retrieve it, how we organize it, and how we use it. For this reason, Bush is revered by some people in the digital innovators today. People like Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, et cetera.

Ted Nelson in the 1970s, the creator of hyperlinks, a piece of software that Apple made famous by incorporating into its operating system—you would embed a link and you would hop to another page—that was Bush’s idea. He called these “associative trails” in his own paper on hypertext in the 1960s. Ted Nelson credits Bush for this idea, and so does everybody else.

And then the final area that he makes a big contribution in is the life and mentality of the scientist. He has a very high-minded sense of the scientist in that the pursuit of new knowledge to him is humbling, not aggrandizing. This is very important, but Bush was very concerned about the surprises that science might deliver. And then the working life and the mentality of the scientist, the excerpt from the book that you chose for the current Issues in Science and Technology about “Faith & Science” suggests that Bush felt scientists could maintain religious perspectives while at the same time working in science. They were not in conflict, they were parallel domains. This is a view that many still hold, but is disputed. But Francis Collins, for instance, the outgoing NIH director, a legendary figure, he holds this view, and famously Steven Jay Gould holds this view.

So Bush creates, for the first time, literate writing by an American about science, and he has a large audience. And I think that those who come after him—Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Ralph Lapp, Stephen Jay Gould, famously Carl Sagan—they put a greater focus on the ills of techno science. Obviously Rachel Carson, Silent Spring: all that chemistry that we loved in the fifties, we didn’t like in the sixties. The distortions of nuclear weapons: for the 25 years from 1945 to 1970, about 50% of spending on science went to nuclear weapons science. 50% of all R&D was gobbled up by the nuclear complex. Whether you were in favor of that or not, it distorted people’s priorities. You had a whole set of people working on stuff that maybe they would not have worked on.

And then another thing that later science writers focused on was space exploration in an enthusiastic way. I have an exchange of letters with Bush and James Webb, the head of NASA. And of course, James Webb was responsible for this remarkable feat of getting the Apollo program so far along. And he was a confidant of John F. Kennedy and of Lyndon Johnson. But Bush told him that with due respect, he was totally wrong to be trying to put people into space. It was foolish. It was a kind of spectacle that was designed to make Americans feel better about themselves. Now, whether he was right or wrong about that, it was an example of how he was willing to advance unpopular ideas.

Lloyd: You anticipated my question in that I was really struck and surprised by this exchange with James Webb, that Bush was so unenthusiastic about crude space flight, maybe space flight in general, or exploration of space. And I was wondering if there were other things, other writings that you came across that you found surprising when you were assembling this collection?

Zachary: Well, I think that Bush, throughout his writings on a number of subjects to deal with national security, was concerned that we were not funding in science, but that we were placing too many hopes on science, too many hopes on research. That it couldn’t deliver all the things we were asking for it. And he was concerned that the pressures on science were too great for tangible results. Listen, I would say that the space program was exceptional, his disquiet, his discomfort with the space program. And remember, during the sixties, the space program took up 2–3% of US GDP. I mean, it took up an enormous amount of money.

Lloyd: And was not very popular.

Zachary: It had a mixed reception. there was a whole set of people that were opposed, strange bedfellows. But another thing that Bush was concerned about and this comes through in an essay called “The Qualities of a Profession,” the 10th selection, was ethical obligations of scientists and engineers. Now his notion of ethical obligations stem from an older, perhaps aristocratic or elitist model, that as the bearers of a special knowledge or expertise—which he thought of as embodied in a profession—there were special obligations, morally, socially for these people. And this is an older model. It’s not an accountability model. And it begins at the onset of the scientific inquiry. It is not a bag on the side, which most science regulation has been deviled by this problem, that you’re trying to use normal means of accountability and applying them to a group that wants to self-regulate. This is doctors, the whole biogenetic field, they want to self-regulate.

And so how does NIH’s Office of Accountability all these, how do they do it? Well, they investigate what the science is doing and they decide that this isn’t right. Well, Bush’s attitude was that we had to acknowledge that at the wellsprings of science and at the wellspring of engineering, the source was an ethical dimension that was existential. You were condemned to carry this existential obligation. And I mean that seriously, because it’s only for that reason that it works, and it’s not an option to go without it.

And so I think that we are again facing a crisis in ethics of scientists and engineers, whether they’re at Facebook or Google, I think the search will continue for ways of thinking about social responsibility. I mean, we’ve had a lot of discussion about responsible innovation, and I think the good part of the concept is it also depends on embedding at the outset concepts of responsibility. The problem has been that in a pluralistic system, people disagree on what’s responsible. Bush held to an older ideal that seems self-evident: you helped others; you did not help yourself.

Lloyd: That kind of public service ethos.

Zachary: Yeah. And I think that we are going to have, maybe, efforts to revive this, but it’s a long process, and I think the science establishment is now so large and varied that it’s very difficult. Because if you have collaborative relationships with People’s Republic of China, how do you draw the line? How do you know that the people you’re working with have fragmented loyalties or are working to undermine you? I mean, why would you know? So what is it about the cosmopolitan ethos that can survive an era that we’re in now, where accountability is getting more attention? But I think that historically, the self-sacrificing activities of people like Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe and any number of scientists that are legendary is striking compared to now, where many successful scientists think they are owed large amounts of money, and they write books that celebrate how great they are. And I’m drawn to the hard-boiled humility that Bush at times showed.

Lloyd: Yeah. I think a lot of researchers, scientists, policymakers would really benefit from reading some of The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush.

Zachary: Yeah. Some of them very moving about the joy of the pursuit of knowledge, as opposed to the rewards of discovery.

Lloyd: You can really sense that in Science, the Endless Frontier, and in his other writing. He talks about the rewards that come from following your curiosity, and I think that principle really became foundational to modern science’s idea of basic research. So thank you, Gregg, for joining us today to talk about the history and impact of Vannevar Bush. And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. To learn more about Bush and postwar science policy, check out Gregg’s book, The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush. You can read an excerpt from the book at our website issues.org, along with our article series entitled “Beyond the Endless Frontier,” which features in-depth essays that grapple with Bush’s legacy for today’s science policy. Check out our show notes and links to these articles and more. Please subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcast. You can email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. And if you enjoy conversation like this one, please visit us at issues.org and consider subscribing to the magazine. I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us.

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Cite this Article

“Episode 10: Creating a ‘High-Minded Enterprise’: Vannevar Bush and Postwar Science Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology (March 14, 2022).