Vannevar Bush is shown with his differential analyzer, an analog electromechanical device that helped provide solutions to complex differential equations. Image: MIT Museum
Vannevar Bush is shown with his differential analyzer, an analog electromechanical device that helped provide solutions to complex differential equations. Image: MIT Museum

In the Spring 2014 issue of MIT SPECTRVM, MIT’s vice president for research Maria Zuber discusses the importance of federal support for basic research. Zuber represents MIT’s research interests in Washington, DC, advocating for investment in science and technology.

In 2012, President Obama appointed Zuber to the National Science Board. This 25-member panel serves as the governing board of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and as advisors to the president and Congress on science and engineering policy. The NSF and its governing structure exist today thanks to the efforts of an MIT alumnus who served as America’s first presidential science advisor: Vannevar Bush PhD ’16.

“No American has had greater influence in the growth of science and technology than Vannevar Bush,” wrote former MIT president Jerome Wiesner in his biography of Vannevar Bush. An inventor, engineer, professor, and dean of the School of Engineering at MIT, Bush broke new ground in information systems and storage, mentoring a generation of scientists who would continue his research, creating personal computers and the internet.

But perhaps his most significant role in history was that of presidential advisor and advocate for long-term government support of science research.

Following his career at MIT, Bush was named head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), an office created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. In this role, Bush oversaw most of America’s scientific research during World War II, including the development of radar and the Manhattan Project.

Within months of taking his post at OSRD, Bush coordinated the creation of a National Roster of Scientific and Specialized Personnel, allowing for quick deployment of personnel for any task. According to a profile of Bush in Collier’s Magazine, “Dr. Bush has a fourth of all physicists and a third of upper-crust chemists working on his projects. He has persuaded industry to part with secret processes and has college laboratories on a three-shift basis.”

President Roosevelt's letter to Vannevar Bush, written in 1944. Click to see full size.
President Roosevelt’s letter to Vannevar Bush, written in 1944. Click to see full size.

Technology helped America and its allies win the War. Roosevelt recognized that continued scientific progress during peacetime was vital to the welfare of the United States; he also recognized Bush’s scientific acumen. In 1944, he wrote a letter to Bush seeking guidance on four points:

  • How to share scientific advances made as part of the war effort with the public, so that this knowledge could spur job creation
  • How to organize a program to further medical research on deadly diseases, to improve public health
  • Suggestions on how the government can aid private and public research organizations
  • How to develop a program for discovering and developing scientific talent among America’s youth

In response to Roosevelt’s query, Bush submitted a seminal report titled “Science: the Endless Frontier.” The report outlined the need for sustained government funding of academic research—and in particular, the critical need to support basic research, noting that, “Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind. Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy.”

In the report, Bush went on to make the case for the creation of a national research foundation, in order to best promote interest in scientific research and scientific education. Based on these recommendations, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was created in 1950 under President Truman.

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