Science Institutions in a New World

In “Science Institutions for a Complex, Fast-Paced World” (Issues, Winter 2020), Marcia McNutt and Michael Crow provide an important wake-up call for those who are deeply concerned about the current state of world, with its urgent need for more tolerance, evidence-based thinking, and science-based policy-making. The authors rightly argue that major institutions must move much more quickly and aggressively to address the enormous challenges facing the crowded, fast-changing planet. The US National Academies and research universities they discuss are well known to me, inasmuch as I have spent more than 50 years in research universities and 12 years as the president of the US National Academy of Sciences. Both are by nature conservative organizations: the Academies because they have critical reputations to protect as the provider of authoritative scientific, engineering, and health advice to the nation, and universities because their academic traditions so heavily value individual intellectual achievement over collaborative efforts with a more practical bent.

I very much agree with the authors when they state that “excellence and social embeddedness will have to be fused in the nation’s universities to achieve public value,” and I write to highlight a particular issue that urgently requires much more attention from US universities: the need to drive cycles of continuous improvement in public education through scientifically based education research. In the late 1990s, the National Academies created a project to ask: Why has research supported innovation and continuous improvement in medicine, agriculture, and transportation, but not in education—and what can we do about it?

Briefly, the answer from two successive studies was that education is missing the equivalent of teaching hospitals in medicine—that is, places where researchers, teachers, and designers collaborate in practice settings to observe, explain, document, replicate, and evaluate practice as a source of new knowledge. This led to the proposal that a small number of US school districts be established as special “field sites” that would readily allow problems to be defined and solutions tested in real-world classrooms. In 2004, a small, independent nongovernmental organization, called the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), was spun out of the Academies to test this idea. The Boston Public Schools system served as the first SERP field site, with adolescent literacy chosen by its superintendent, Tom Payzant, as the focus.

Since that time, SERP’s work has extended into additional areas, including mathematics and science (see But progress has been slowed by the need to change two cultures: that of school districts, which are often driven by short-term needs that make long-term research efforts difficult to sustain, and that of research universities, whose efforts to improve K-12 education, if they exist, are driven by grants to individual faculty members that make the whole no more than the sum of its parts.

I would like to suggest a new effort by the National Academies—in collaboration with university leaders such as Michael Crow—to ask a new question: How can the nation much more energetically and effectively use its research universities to improve precollege education, perhaps the most critical issue for the world’s future?

Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education
University of California, San Francisco
President, National Academy of Sciences 1993–2002

Marcia McNutt and Michael Crow pay homage to the prescience of Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier and its transformational impact on the US scientific enterprise. They then discuss how the science and engineering community should evolve going forward, with a particular focus on institutions such as the National Academies and the nation’s research universities. They argue for a more public-facing, socially engaged enterprise.

Yet few people beyond the scientific community appreciate how Bush’s report served as a blueprint for government investment in scientific research and transformed the nation’s approach to solving complex problems. Even fewer make the connection between the US government’s investment in science and the fruits of these investments in diverse areas, including health care and the everyday technology of the twenty-first century. Most people assume that a better educated citizenry will naturally make these connections from the evidence and be more supportive of science—but the expected support for science is often lacking. Why?

We must have the courage to look in the mirror—as a scientific enterprise and a higher education community—and ask how we can better engage the public. We must move from science viewed solely as an elite activity in the research university to science that, as McNutt and Crow say, is “deeply entwined with the practical experience of daily life,” such as prevention and treatment of diseases like COVID-19, reversing climate change, and the creation of jobs.

With COVID-19 on the minds of everyone, we have the opportunity to help the public better understand the strong connections between science, public health, the economy, and the future of humankind.

As a first step, we must ask ourselves: How do Americans feel about science? Do they think of themselves as part of the scientific enterprise? Do they think of science as critical to their day-to-day lives, essential to health, jobs, and social mobility? Can we imagine a society that is as excited about science as it is about basketball?

Many Americans have not had a good educational experience with science. As we talk to students and others, it is common to find a majority who admit that by 11th grade they either loved or hated science and mathematics or who were interested in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) when entering college but transferred to other majors, leaving with negative feelings about science.

Despite our success in educating more Americans since the Endless Frontier and educating more in STEM specifically, the higher education community has not made enough progress toward including people of all backgrounds in the work we do. Consequently, too few people see themselves reflected in the important work done by scientists. Even increased enrollments for women and people of color haven’t translated into similar diversity of the scientific workforce. For example, fewer than 2% of scientists at the National Institutes of Health are black and about 4% are Latinx, and the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women has fallen from 36% to 18% since 1984. How can we expect members of the black or Latinx communities or women to support science when they are significantly underrepresented in the enterprise?

Looking in the mirror, we must communicate more directly and effectively with the public about science. By pulling laypeople into the conversation, we can cultivate a public that believes in the importance of science for innovation and problem-solving and supports public investment in the scientific enterprise. As champions for science, we should ensure that the student experience emphasizes the reciprocal value of the arts and sciences and strives to eliminate the unhelpful division between STEM and arts/humanities. We must also cultivate a scientific enterprise that welcomes students of all backgrounds and enables them to identify with science. Our efforts to increase diversity and inclusion must be data-driven and intentional, and we must build on successful models now being replicated across universities.

With COVID-19 on the minds of everyone, we have the opportunity to help the public better understand the strong connections between science, public health, the economy, and the future of humankind.

President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

Senior Adviser, Office of the President, UMBC

Professor, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Do not forget about Harley Kilgore.

Any discussion about American science policy in the post-World War II era should include Kilgore. A US senator from West Virginia from 1941 to 1956, Kilgore chaired the Senate’s Subcommittee on War Mobilization. He also served on the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. In these roles, Kilgore played a key role in determining the most effective ways to organize military research.

As a result of his legislative work on military research, Kilgore developed opinions about the role of the federal government in science and technology research more broadly. In many ways, Kilgore’s views about the best way to promote scientific research pitted him against Vannevar Bush. The two had a robust debate that spanned multiple years, numerous pieces of legislation, the release of Bush’s Endless Frontier report in 1945, and the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1950.

Although Bush is widely regarded as the architect of postwar American science policy, many ideas that Kilgore championed have become part of that policy. For example, Kilgore wanted the president, not a board of scientists, to appoint the NSF director to ensure public accountability while avoiding undue politicization. Pending Senate confirmation, Sethuraman Panchanathan will become the 15th presidential appointee to fill this role.

Kilgore also advocated for federal funding for social sciences research. In 1957, NSF created the Social Science Research Program. Today, NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate invests more than $200 million across the social sciences, which represents more than 60% of the total annual federal funding for basic social science research conducted at universities and colleges. This investment is especially important given recurring political and ideological attacks on the directorate.

I suspect Kilgore, who called for federal research funding to be distributed widely to avoid concentration of research and education in a small number of states, would also be pleased that NSF created the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) in 1979. EPSCoR is a competitive grant program designed to build research capacity in states that historically have underperformed in NSF funding. From five charter states (West Virginia among them), EPSCoR has grown today to 28 states and jurisdictions, from Alabama to Wyoming. As further evidence of the program’s goal, EPSCoR has expanded from NSF to five other federal agencies: the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Institutes of Health. These agencies received more than $650 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2019 for EPSCoR and EPSCoR-type programs, enabling talented researchers and students to contribute to America’s research enterprise.

McNutt and Crow do an admirable job of describing Vannevar Bush’s significant influence on the formulation of American science policy during the past 75 years. To their essay, I offer a friendly amendment: remember Harley Kilgore. As a voice for public accountability, the social sciences, and what we today call the “flyover states,” Kilgore was equally significant—and successful.

President, West Virginia University

Marcia McNutt and Michael Crow properly describe Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier as a watershed document that changed the way the United States funded and conducted science after World War II. I believe it is the greatest science policy treatise ever produced, with direct consequences—intended and unintended—that led to structural reforms that transformed American science from “Little Science” to “Big Science.”

McNutt and Crow are also prescient in realizing that even the best of science policies and their applications must change with the times. I would put the matter more strongly. I believe there is ample evidence to demonstrate: 1) that the structure set up by Bush and Congress after the war had much to do with catapulting American university-based science to international preeminence; and 2) that although the model still works in many respects, it needs to be rethought in a number of significant ways, as part of a much larger change in American research universities.

Consider, in no particular order, just a few of many potential changes that ought to be considered in a new version of Science, The Endless Frontier:

  • Rethink the role of scientists and Congress in the allocation of scientific funding. Scientists should be engaged more directly in the setting of scientific and health priorities, with congressional oversight and review as in national intelligence issues, but without veto power.
  • Federal and state governments ought to create at multiple universities a highly prestigious and sought-after fellowship program, the equivalent of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Program, which has been enormously successful in the biomedical fields, but across the sciences. One particular target should be talented young people who are willing to think outside the box and to challenge the orthodoxies in the social and behavioral sciences.
  • We need policies that support the growing multidisciplinary structures of universities. The paradigm shift will involve a movement away from siloed research to a combination of deep knowledge with research across disciplinary and school lines that is now virtually required for the growth of understanding.
  • We need novel programs that support undergraduate teaching of science and technological literacy.
  • We need a mechanism that offers training to members of Congress and their staffs on the state of knowledge about major scientific challenges and global problems.
  • We need to recognize the crisis for young scientists who are unable to receive their first grants to set up their own labs until they are past the age of 40.
  • We need the Presidential Science Advisor and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to occupy a strengthened and permanent place in the Executive Branch.
  • We need (as is now obvious) to create a new and well-funded national vaccine institute that focuses on potential pandemics. We cannot expect private industry to do this, given that 90% of potential pandemics don’t materialize.
  • And finally, our research must even look at warfare and conflict differently from the past, now that cyberwarfare is a formidable opponent and social media is capable of adversely affecting freedom of expression, controlling privacy, and influencing personal behavioral choices.

McNutt and Crow place the right questions in front of us. Now we must take their ideas as a point of departure and create a new transformative policy document for the twenty-first century.

John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University
Department of Sociology
Columbia University

As both a government agency scientist and a faculty member at a Florida two-year college, I hope Marcia McNutt and Michael Crow’s vision will include the two sectors I work in, particularly regarding the transfer of scientific knowledge to many more people. This is not something large research universities can do on their own, even the land-grant institutions with their extension services. Smaller state colleges, whose mission is to serve a much more local population, are more “socially embedded” in their communities (to use the authors’ phrase) and can help connect more at a local level.

Similarly, resource management agencies such as mine can also help with the identification of important local and regional issues and communication of scientific knowledge, as we have ties with local business communities, schools, nongovernmental organizations, and the elite research universities. By way of example, my group has done considerable work with the University of Florida.

Environmental Scientist V
Florida Bureau of Water Resources
St. Johns River Water Management District

Cite this Article

“Science Institutions in a New World.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 3 (Spring 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Spring 2020