In the years prior to America’s entry into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt recognized the urgency to build up and expand our military. But it fell to Vannevar Bush, a former MIT engineering dean and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, to persuade FDR that success in securing America would also require massive government investments in science and technology. In 1940 Dr. Bush was appointed to head first the National Defense Research Committee and later the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) as agencies to funnel government funds into weapons technologies and new medicines, and to create an academic-industry-military complex, which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project, enhanced radar, large-scale production of penicillin, and other programs that propelled us to victory over the axis powers.
Fast forward to today, and we see a U.S. budget focused around President Trump’s commitment to make America secure through expanded funding for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. What’s missing is a co-investment in science. Instead quite the opposite has happened: The President’s budget includes dramatic cuts across federal science agencies, including approximately 20-percent reductions to the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, as well as important cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was no mention of the National Science Foundation (NSF), ironically first created as the successor to OSRD in years after World War II.
The U.S. will face enormous challenges in the next year, including potential defense security threats in North Korea, the South China Sea (China has dramatically stepped up its science investments), and the Middle East; border issues with Mexico and Canada; and disease pandemic threats from H7N9 pandemic flu and other zoonotic viral diseases, in addition to Zika and yellow fever virus infections transmitted by mosquitoes. Asking Congress to approve budget increases for defense and homeland security, without parallel investments in American science runs counter to a historical and proven winning formula.
In 1940 FDR took advantage of recruiting a trusted science advisor who helped him make America great both during World War II and the decades afterwards. A decade following the end of the Cold War, U.S. Presidential Administrations have allowed federal budgets for the life and medical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering to remain mostly flat. A new report from the NSF finds that the percentage US government contribution in supporting basic research has reached unprecedented lows.
Today, many aspects of our U.S. science infrastructure are in decay, and of greatest concern of all, young people are thinking twice about embarking on scientific careers. From my perspective as an academic dean, we are losing or may have lost a generation of young scientists, as the prospects of obtaining federal grants are diminishing, and will evaporate if the President’s proposed science budget is adopted in Congress.
Now more than ever, the White House needs to bring on board a modern-day Vannevar Bush who in his or her role as U.S. Science Advisor could promote national scientific prominence. A strong science advisor could help the President of the United States understand how expanding defense and homeland security budgets without commensurate support for science will ensure that America will fail to produce the security gains that he hopes to achieve.
In the meantime, Congress and the White House need to work together in order to increase investments in American science. They need to recognize that science is not “soft power.”It’s as hard as nails and vital to our homeland security.