A Forgotten Model for Purposeful Science

In the 1970s the National Science Foundation had a good idea for tapping science for the public good. It is still a good idea.

Toward the end of Richard Nixon’s first term as president, his Republican administration forced on a reluctant National Science Foundation (NSF) a major research program that looked like something out of a New Deal social laboratory. Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) was more ambitious than any program NSF had undertaken before or has undertaken since. Between 1971 and 1977, it spent almost a half billion dollars to fund research projects that were far-reaching, innovative, and targeted. Ironically, Jimmy Carter’s Democratic administration, with Frank Press as science adviser and Richard Atkinson as NSF director, killed it without regret.

RANN’s Republican origin was an obvious political paradox but so too was its ending. By killing the program, the U.S. science establishment spurned an opportunity to demonstrate the power of directed research to make life better for Americans and establish science as a “city upon a hill”: a merger of science with societal aspiration. In hindsight, the Democrats appear to have squandered an opportunity to raise science to higher esteem in the public eye.

At NSF, however, RANN’s demise was received with a sigh of relief and a touch of “good riddance.” Not only was the program eliminated, but except for mention in NSF histories, it was all but obliterated as an idea worth remembering. Still, the basic RANN concept never did die entirely, because from time to time since then calls have come forth—many in the pages of this journal—for a new contract between science and society. Whether described as “strategic research” or “Jeffersonian science,” or “Pasteur’s quadrant,” these calls have shared the identical goals of enhancing connective streams between basic research and the unsolved, overlooked, or lingering problems facing technology, industry, and society. Unfortunately, so officially discredited was RANN that none of these appeals referred back to the program as an approach that was once tried and might by chance be something to learn from.

We believe that a modernized version of RANN could be what the country needs and might enable science to contribute more to the common good. Cries for a revived federal science and technology policy are hardly lacking today, especially in view of the sturm und drang in specific areas such as stem cell research, the teaching of evolution in schools, global warming, energy shortages, health care inefficiencies and inequities, weakness in the country’s critical infrastructure, various social programs said to be suffering from budget cuts, the collapse of the industrial pension system, the marginalizing of the White House science advisory role, and the stacking of science panels with political ideologues. What has been lost, according to critics, is the goal of foresight and objectivity in establishing priorities, resulting in fears that when science advice is unsought, devalued, or restricted to interests dominated by the marketplace, only a degraded and forfeited future can be in prospect.

RANN’s purpose was to manage a set of research projects specifically targeted at improving various social, economic, industrial, and intergovernmental sectors of the country: problems in energy, the environment, industrial innovation, urban and rural quality of life, the criminal justice system, medical delivery systems, the management of cities, communication needs across the board, transportation, the country’s infrastructure, analysis of complex policy issues, and quite a bit more.

RANN scanned the terrain in search of existing and emerging problems, assembled them into categories, and asked the research community—academic and industrial—to submit proposals for research on meeting goals that fell under each grouping; goals that the federal mission agencies either missed or lacked the resources to tackle. The program was essentially an idea factory that depended on researchers to embroider those ideas, reshape them, take resulting projects to the proof-of-concept stage, and once they achieved promise, transfer them to industry, a mission agency, or to state or local governments so that they could be put to practical use.

The main problem, however, was that RANN was never able to embed itself in the value system of the basic research establishment itself, much less in the inner structure and mentality of its agency. NSF was founded on the assumption that its sole mission was to support basic research. Accordingly, most of its senior staff resented any encroachment on that sacred trust by anything that reeked of applications. Too much applied research, it was believed, would only crowd out university funding for basic research, felt to be eternally in short supply, and do little more than water down academic excellence.

Still, the program did run long enough to leave a record, even a legacy in the form of programs funded by RANN that exist today. Using science and technology as a resource for state and local governments in their policy planning and in program development and execution was a RANN initiative. Interdisciplinary research, now so common in NSF programs, got its start at RANN. Cooperative ventures among government, universities, and industry, also commonplace today, began under RANN. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program was devised by RANN. Much of today’s fire research program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology was initially inspired by RANN fire projects. RANN’s solar energy program formed the basis for renewable energy research at today’s Department of Energy. Its environmental projects on trace metal contaminants and estuaries at risk preceded work that was moved to the Environmental Protection Agency. It did early work on the technique of technology assessment and was thus a precursor to Congress’s now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment.

An unlikely lineage

Why RANN was a Republican invention is a quirk of political history. But it did make sense at the time. The administration was eager to soothe an electorate split over the war in Vietnam, worn down by the urban and racial violence of the 1960s, and staggered by the wrenching assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Unemployment was a worry; the space program was sputtering because the end of the manned expeditions to the Moon had put thousands of engineers out of work. Most of the country hungered for stability against groups of activists clamoring for radical change. New ideas were being sought to improve a stagnating economy and overhaul outmoded institutions. (“If we can send a man to the Moon, why can’t we…?) And the Middle East was nearing the brink of another Arab-Israeli war, which would ultimately lead to the crippling 1973 oil embargo. Moreover, the 1972 election was looming, and Nixon’s staff was eager to snatch any ideas they could to animate that “lift of a driving dream” slogan that speechwriters inflicted on the president for a brief time.

NSF had already had a launch platform, as it were, for RANN in the form of a small program called Interdisciplinary Research Relevant to Problems of Society, which was established in 1968, after Congress passed an act that amended NSF’s charter to include research in social science, applied science, and engineering. The program was NSF’s first attempt at combining engineering and the physical and social sciences in single research projects.

Sensing that the National Science Board (NSF’s board of directors) might be reluctant to launch something so large and disruptive, George Shultz, head of the Office of Management and Budget and no stranger to academic science, went before the board to tell its members how much the administration desired RANN. He told the board that unless it supported RANN, any increase in the NSF budget for the coming fiscal year would be denied by the administration. RANN soon became a reality.

RANN’s first director was Alfred J. Eggers, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineer and administrator who was known for his design work on the lifting body concept so central to the landing of wingless vehicles from space, and for a certain zeal for applying to civilian use technological developments from the U.S. space program. NSF director William D. McElroy threw his own energies into the RANN cause against a skeptical Congress and continuing resistance from NSF’s senior staff and some of the top members of the country’s science establishment. McElroy left NSF about a year after RANN’s founding and was succeeded by H. Guyford Stever, who also took a liking to RANN. At the White House, Nixon’s science adviser Edward E. David established an interagency committee to ensure that RANN efforts were being coordinated with the interests and wishes of wary mission agencies, always protective of their own turf.

Advanced Technology Applications

Earthquake engineering, fire research, socioeconomic response to natural hazards, and technological opportunities

Energy Research and Technology

Solar energy, geothermal energy, energy conversion and storage, energy systems, energy resources, advanced automotive propulsion, and energy and fuel transportation

Environmental Systems and Resources

Environmental effects of energy, regional environmental systems, environmental aspects of trace contaminants, and weather modification

Social Systems and Human Resources

Municipal systems and services, human resources and services, social data and evaluation, and public regulation and economic productivity

Exploratory Research and Problems Assessment

Technology assessment, selected research topics, and new problems and projects

Intergovernmental Science

Strengthen the capability of state and local governments to integrate science and technology into their policy formulation and daily operations

RANN’s operations had to be kept flexible and imaginative. Change was part of its culture. The organization was constantly fine-tuning itself organizationally as projects ended and others began. RANN was essentially an agency within an agency, and its structure, spirit, and NASA-like go-go way of operating unnerved many of NSF’s core staffers, who bridled at the discipline of schedules and milestones.

Richard Atkinson replaced Stever as NSF director in May 1977, soon after Carter was elected president, and from the start he showed little friendship toward RANN. He created an agency task force (which RANN supporters believe was rigged against the program) to conduct a review and evaluation. The task force said RANN was a distraction and an impediment to NSF’s primary role of supporting undirected research in basic and applied science and engineering in universities. The RANN program, though less than 10% of the NSF budget, was viewed as a threat to the status quo. The task force recommended ending the program, and by September RANN was shut down.

The Democratic Congress did nothing to save what was seen basically as a Republican initiative. Few of the mainstream staff at NSF regretted the loss and for years sustained the fantasy that RANN was a badly run bad idea managed by people who fell outside the NSF culture. Eventually, RANN was either forgotten or dismissed with specious derision.

Atkinson may have succeeded in killing RANN, but NSF could never escape the pressure from Congress to demonstrate how the basic research it funded was benefiting the country. The agency’s engineering programs were grounded in practicality, but gone was the conscious, directed attempt by NSF to seek out specific societal problems and train the resources of portions of the research world on their solution. Instead, application at NSF became indirect, in the form of increasingly close relations between the agency and industry. Engineering programs and new university innovation centers grew in fields such as biotechnology, information technology, and more recently nanotechnology. These efforts have grown to the point where they now essentially determine a significant portion of NSF’s basic research agenda. In their funding approach, they reflect not so much the RANN approach as the “Jeffersonian science” technique of simply pouring research money into a technology that is assumed, in an unspecified way, to be substantially useful.

NSF’s three technology initiatives—bio, info, and nano— could become more RANN-like if the agency were to adopt RANN’s “hot pursuit” concept. Under that idea, RANN analysts would examine various research outcomes and determine those with high application potential. Those with the most promising economic or social potential would be chosen for hot pursuit of some application, and when preliminary investigation proved successful, they would be transferred to an appropriate user organization. Unsuccessful initiatives would simply be dropped.

The point is that the need for new programmatic ideas is never exhausted. One can note how in the wake of the 2005 Katrina hurricane disaster, the state of the poor and extent of their problems in New Orleans suddenly became visible to the rest of the country. The poor have seldom been targets of serious assessment by the scientific community. A RANN program would assess their needs and look for research that might be helpful—ranging from assessments of information services such as the Internet, to new approaches to housing and other infrastructure needs, to educational innovations, to family assistance requirements. RANN would identify problems; take a first cut at identifying relevant research; and call on researchers, organizations, and interest groups to help in the planning of applied research initiatives.

A redesigned RANN would heavily involve the social sciences to define issues of individual and community concern, from the needs of children and families to the optimization of the lives of the elderly. It would expand its interests in technological innovation and perhaps model its own approaches partly on existing programs at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Both programs are reminiscent of RANN in the targeted approach they take toward innovation. DARPA’S work, which preceded RANN’s establishment by 13 years, is to sponsor high-payoff research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use. It is the military’s technological change agent, with a program marked by opportunism and flexibility. The concept of a “civilian DARPA” has been discussed in science policy circles since the 1970s, when the government, alarmed by Japan’s rise as a technological superpower, began seeking ways of spurring innovation in U.S. industry. A civilian DARPA, it was thought, would upgrade the government’s expertise by adopting an active, strategic approach to meeting present and future national needs.

A DARPA approach toward innovation in energy was in fact proposed in the report Rising above the Gathering Storm issued by the National Academies in October 2005.“The new agency,” the report declared in what is in fact a functional definition of a new RANN, “would sponsor creative, out-of-the-box, transformational, generic energy research in those areas where industry by itself cannot or will not undertake such sponsorship, where risk and potential payoff are high, but where success could provide dramatic benefits for the nation. ARPA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy] would accelerate the process by which research is transformed to address economic, environmental, and security issues. It would be designed as a lean, effective, agile—but independent—organization that can start and stop targeted programs based on performance and ultimate relevance.” The applicability of that approach to other national needs is obvious.

These thoughts are merely suggestive of what a new RANN might assemble. The shape would be contingent on the chosen needs. Suffice it to say that a new RANN would have the charter to range far and wide. A primary responsibility would be problem selection and definition. Once the program plans were in place, RANN would make awards to carry out the required problem-focused research. Awardees would run the gamut of organizations, including academe, government, nonprofits, industry, and other qualified performers. Under this scheme, RANN would be a unitary, self-contained organization to develop solutions to national problems and hand them off to the appropriate users.

The ATP model would be equally relevant to a redesigned RANN. ATP was established as a direct outgrowth of concerns over Japan two decades ago. Its purpose is to serve as a venture capital source of sorts to companies that want to explore risky pre-market technologies but need some financial help to do it. In fact, the seeds of ATP were sown in the SBIR program that was established as a RANN venture. The grants that ATP gives to corporations must be matched by them dollar for dollar. ATP support for a company usually ends within three years (five years for consortia) on the assumption that by then any idea should be either discarded or taken fully over by the company receiving the support. The same procedure would hold true for the new RANN, including the practice of cost sharing.

Obviously, any new RANN proposal would run up against today’s Republican market-oriented politics and distrust of government. A new RANN along the lines drawn here would without question require a transformation in attitudes about government’s role in economic and social contexts. Thus, any revival might well have to wait for changes in public opinion and a transfer of political power. We believe, however, that the public is ready to hear the message of RANN and that the research community would serve itself well by reassessing its own public responsibilities.

Science policy today is a passive activity, especially because the market is seen as the center of national governance. The market, although it works well in meeting and stimulating public wants, nevertheless does a poor job of reflecting public needs. The unanswered question is whether any administration would be willing to give a new agency the resources, independence, and flexibility necessary to do the job right. The will to act will come when voters focus on the enormous potential latent in government-funded science and begin to ask those ever-fresh questions: Why not, and what if?

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Cite this Article

Green, Richard J., and Wil Lepkowski. “A Forgotten Model for Purposeful Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 2 (Winter 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 2, Winter 2006