Skip to main content

Seventy-Year-Old Vision for Basic Research Remains Essential Today, Agency Leaders Say

Thumbnail
News_20150504_STForumIntl5_full_169
France Córdova | AAAS

Seventy years after inventor and statesman Vannevar Bush urged President Harry Truman to invest in the nation's future by funding basic science, the head of the National Science Foundation said her agency remains committed to Bush's vision while coping with significant changes in the ways science is organized and discoveries pursued.

France Córdova, director of the NSF, spoke at a session on 20 April at the 40th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy. She noted the enormous influence of Bush's report, "Science — The Endless Frontier," which he delivered to Truman in July, 1945. Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, noted in his report that "New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes."

Thumbnail
News_20150504_Forum_Vannevar_Bush_half
Vannevar Bush | Wikimedia Commons

He added: "The effective discharge of these new responsibilities will require the full attention of some over-all agency devoted to that purpose." Five years after Bush's report, the NSF was founded with an emphasis on basic research — studies pursued in large part by wonder about how and why things work in nature, without regard to immediate pay-off.

Though the NSF is not exactly the agency envisioned by Bush, Córdova said, "None can dispute that Bush's report to the president and the vigorous discussion it engendered had an enormous influence on the character and making of the National Science Foundation."

While there sometimes is a perception that NSF is moving away from its basic research mission in favor of more applied research, Córdova said, the percentage of her agency's research budget devoted to basic research has remained steady. It was 92 percent of the budget in 2005, she said, and "that figure is virtually unchanged" in 2014. Over the past decade, it has ranged between 90 and 94 percent. Such numbers underscore the agency's "continuing commitment to basic research," Córdova said.

Even when the agency does support more applied fields such as engineering and computer science, "it is fundamental, use-inspired research that we actually fund," Córdova said. The results can be unexpected. Finding new computer algorithms, for example, can provide insights into transformative technologies and innovative products, she said.

Córdova spoke during a session on national and international issues in science and technology. Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, science director at the São Paulo Research Foundation in Brazil, said Vannevar Bush's report was an inspiration in his country as well. In 1947, the State Senate of São Paulo approved an article of the state constitution providing that 0.5 percent of all state revenues would go to a foundation that would support research. In 1989, it was increased to 1.0 percent. Such predictable funding gives the foundation substantial stability and autonomy, Brito Cruz said.

Today, São Paulo — one of 26 states in Brazil — continues to play a dominant role in Brazilian science. The state spends almost twice as much on R&D as the Brazilian federal government, Brito Cruz said, and scientists from São Paulo alone publish more journal articles per year than any country in Latin America.

Thumbnail
News_20150504_deBritoCruz1_thirdsize
Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz | AAAS

"We in Brazil try to learn a lot from the experience of the United States and all its agencies," Brito Cruz said. "Many of the researchers and administrators of science have worked here in the United States." He added, "We are very much interested in developing research collaborations."  It is not just about exchanging personnel, he said, but about conceiving a project and fighting together for its approval.

Córdova cited the increase in global partnerships as one of the changes NSF has been responding to in recent years as it seeks new approaches in pursuit of path-breaking research. Among the others she mentioned: more emphasis on open access and transparency in publishing results of NSF-funded projects; more initiatives involving transdisciplinary research; quicker translation of research results to practical application through programs such as the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps), which helps scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory; and more emphasis on large research facilities and "big" science.

Córdova noted that NSF must always compete for funds within the federal government's discretionary budget, which is subject to the annual appropriations process (unlike mandatory spending requirements such as Social Security benefits, Medicare, and Medicaid).

"Is NSF truly discretionary?" Córdova asked. "Our nation's future, including our preparedness for that future, depends on innovation," she said. "Innovation in turn depends, in large part, on discovery, and discovery is fueled by basic research. This pursuit is not discretionary."

It is important to recognize the real value of what NSF does, including the fostering of the next generation of scientists, Córdova said. In that regard, she made a case that echoes the words of the Bush report 70 years ago.

"The real ceiling on our productivity of new scientific knowledge and its application in the war against disease, and the development of new products and new industries, is the number of trained scientists available," Bush wrote. He added: "The Government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth. These responsibilities are the proper concern of the Government, for they vitally affect our health, our jobs, and our national security."

Thumbnail
News_20150504_Schlegel_thirdsize
Flavia Schlegel | AAAS

NSF is invested in education research and developing new learning tools to help promote science as a career choice, Cordóva said. Yet the funding rates for early-career scientists seeking their first NSF research grants are discouragingly low, she said, and many young researchers may turn away from science unless the situation improves. "NSF's motto has been 'Where discoveries begin,'" Córdova said, "meaning that many inventions that we take for granted today had their roots in NSF funding. I'd like to expand that motto to 'Where discoveries and discoverers begin.'"

Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), noted the essential role of basic research in the well-being of nations generally. "For a thriving scientific enterprise, you really need basic science," Schlegel said. However, to achieve sustainable development, she said, will require more than an effective science policy and better technology. It will require the integration of many policies within countries, regions, and global institutions, she said, including migration policies, energy policies, climate change policies, and others. Citing comments by a colleague, Schlegel said: "The challenge ahead is maybe more the poverty of politics and not the poverty of technology."

Author

Earl Lane

Related Scientific Disciplines