The Government-University Partnership in Science

In an age when the entire store of knowledge doubles every five years, where prosperity depends upon command of that ever-growing store, the United States is the strongest it has ever been, thanks in large measure to the remarkable pace and scope of American science and technology in the past 50 years.

Our scientific progress has been fueled by a unique partnership between government, academia, and the private sector. Our Constitution actually promotes the progress of what the Founders called “science and the useful arts.” The partnership deepened with the founding of land-grant universities in the 1860s. After World War II, President Roosevelt directed his science advisor, Vannevar Bush, to determine how the remarkable wartime research partnership between universities and the government could be sustained in peace.

“New frontiers of the mind are before us,” Roosevelt said. “If they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged the war, we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment, and a fuller and more fruitful life.” Perhaps no presidential prophecy has ever been more accurate.

Vannevar Bush helped to convince the American people that government must support science; that the best way to do it would be to fund the work of independent university researchers. This ensured that, in our nation, scientists would be in charge of science. And where before university science relied largely on philanthropic organizations for support, now the national government would be a strong and steady partner.

This commitment has helped to transform our system of higher education into the world’s best. It has kindled a half-century of creativity and productivity in our university life. Well beyond the walls of academia, it has helped to shape the world in which we live and the world in which we work. Biotechnology, modern telecommunications, the Internet–all had their genesis in university labs in recombinant DNA work, in laser and fiber optic research, in the development of the first Web browser.

It is shaping the way we see ourselves, both in a literal and in an imaginative way. Brain imaging is revealing how we think and process knowledge. We are isolating the genes that cause disease, from cystic fibrosis to breast cancer. Soon we will have mapped the entire human genome, unveiling the very blueprint of human life.

Today, because of this alliance between government and the academy, we are indeed enjoying fuller and more fruitful lives. With only a few months left in the millennium, the time has come to renew the alliance between America and its universities, to modernize our partnership to be ready to meet the challenges of the next century.

Three years ago, I directed my National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to look into and report back to me on how to meet this challenge. The report makes three major recommendations. First, we must move past today’s patchwork of rules and regulations and develop a new vision for the university-federal government partnership. Vice President Gore has proposed a new compact between our scientific community and our government, one based on rigorous support for science and a shared responsibility to shape our breakthroughs into a force for progress. I ask the NSTC to work with universities to write a statement of principles to guide this partnership into the future.

Next, we must recognize that federal grants support not only scientists but also the university students with whom they work. The students are the foot soldiers of science. Though they are paid for their work, they are also learning and conducting research essential to their own degree programs. That is why we must ensure that government regulations do not enforce artificial distinctions between students and employees. Our young people must be able to fulfill their dual roles as learners and research workers.

And I ask all of you to work with me to get more of our young people–especially our minorities and women students–to work in our research fields. Over the next decade, minorities will represent half of all of our school-age children. If we want to maintain our continued leadership in science and technology well into the next century, we simply must increase our ability to benefit from their talents as well.

Finally, America’s scientists should spend more time on research, not filling out forms in triplicate. Therefore, I direct the NSTC to redouble its efforts to cut down the red tape, to streamline the administrative burden of our partnership. These steps will bring federal support for science into the 21st century. But they will not substitute for the most basic commitment we need to make. We must continue to expand our support for basic research.

You know, one of Clinton’s Laws of Politics–not science, mind you–is that whenever someone looks you in the eye and says, this is not a money problem, they are almost certainly talking about someone else’s problem. Half of all basic research–research not immediately transferable to commerce but essential to progress–is conducted in our universities. For the past six years, we have consistently increased our investment in these areas. Last year, as a part of our millennial observation to honor the past and imagine the future, we launched the 21st Century Research Fund, the largest investment in civilian research and development in our history. In my most recent balanced budget, I proposed a new information technology initiative to help all disciplines take advantage of the latest advances in computing research.

Unfortunately, the resolution on the budget passed by Congress earlier this month shortchanges that proposal and undermines research partnerships with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy. This is no time to step off the path of progress and scientific research. So I ask all of you, as leaders of your community, to build support for these essential initiatives. Let’s make sure the last budget of this century prepares our nation well for the century to come.

From its birth, our nation has been built by bold, restless, searching people. We have always sought new frontiers. The spirit of America is, in that sense, truly the spirit of scientific inquiry.

Vannevar Bush once wrote that “science has a simple faith which transcends utility . . . the faith that it is the privilege of man to learn to understand and that this is his mission . . . Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely to prevail, that is the essence of our being. None can define its limits or set its ultimate boundaries.”

I thank all of you for living that faith, for expanding our limits and broadening our boundaries. I thank you through both anonymity and acclaim, through times of stress and strain, as well as times of triumph, for carrying on this fundamental human mission.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Clinton, Bill. “The Government-University Partnership in Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 4 (Summer 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 4, Summer 1999