History, as in biological and physical systems, often has beautiful symmetries. In November 1944, President Roosevelt posed 4 questions to Dr. Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. 8 months latter, in July 1945, Bush responded with “Science The Endless Frontier” [link], which proposed the creation of what became the National Science Foundation (NSF).
On 15 Jan 2021, then President-elect Biden posed 5 questions to an eminent scientist of our era [link]. Within the year, I expect Dr. Eric Lander and his team will answer with “Science The Endless Frontier, Part II.” In the pages of the Bush report, it is almost as if time has stood still. There has been progress, and yet the table of contents could be transported from 75 years hence to today, but for replacing “the war” with “the pandemic.”
Then, as now…
- The prospect of a lost generation in education (today, most acutely in K-3 education, as opposed to the 18–25 year old men drafted into the war effort)
- The threat to freedom of inquiry and dissemination of scientific information
- The financial barriers to science education¹
In a secondary nod to history, this week also marks 400,000 US COVID dead, surpassing US military deaths during WWII.
I know not what Lander’s “Science The Endless Frontier, Part II” will hold; but, I do know the power — for good and ill — of ideas translated into institutions.
In 1945, “Science The Endless Frontier” called for 300 3-year graduate fellowships per year.² NSF has awarded the Graduate Research Fellowship since 1952, and I am a 2010 recipient. It is humbling to embody an idea transmitted across the generations via an institution, each man but one small link in an unbroken thread.³
Godspeed Dr. Lander, Dr. Nelson and company.
¹ “There are talented individuals in every segment of the population, but with few exceptions those without the means of buying higher education go without it. Here is a tremendous waste of the greatest resource of a nation — the intelligence of its citizens.” [link]
² NSF GRFP currently awards ~2,000 fellowships per year.
The plan is, further, that all those who receive such scholarships or fellowships in science should be enrolled in a National Science Reserve and be liable to call into the service of the Government, in connection with scientific or technical work in time of war or other national emergency declared by Congress or proclaimed by the President. [link]
…I wonder what happened to the “National Science Reserve” concept. A citizen-scientist militia has a very American feel to it, of the distrustful of standing armies variety.