In November 1944, President Roosevelt wrote a letter to Vannevar Bush, who was then director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSDR). From there, Bush oversaw many of the scientific advances that contributed to victory in World War II. The end of the war was yet nine months away, but FDR asked Bush to advise him on how, “in the days of peace ahead,” the experience of the OSRD could be applied for the betterment of society.
Today, pushing to end a global pandemic but facing a growing climate change crisis, President Biden has sent a similar letter to Eric Lander, the incoming science adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In addition to advising the President on matters of science and technology, OSTP leads the coordination and implementation of science policies across the federal government.
The parallels between the FDR and Biden letters are striking. Both emphasize the role of science in health. FDR wanted guidance on how to continue the war of “science against disease” that was pursued during WWII. President Biden seeks information on the key “lessons learned” from COVID-19. How can the federal government be better prepared to protect public health during the next pandemic? The Biden letter also includes a complementary focus on the health of the planet: it asks breakthroughs in science and technology that can help address climate change.
The two letters also share a concern for the application of scientific research to the wider needs of society. FDR sought recommendations on how the government could promote the research of private and public organizations; 75 years later, President Biden asks for new ways to ensure that the U.S. is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future.
Other commonalities in the letters relate to enhancing public understanding of science and to the challenge of nurturing and retaining top scientific talent. FDR wanted to “make known to the world” the contributions science had made to the United States—and could make in the future. Specifically, he wanted a program to discover and develop scientific talent. Today, the Biden letter seeks ways to preserve and strengthen the long-term health of U.S. science: by protecting scientific integrity, improving models of research support, bringing the brightest minds to bear on the scientific issues of our time, and encouraging scientists to serve in key roles in government.
The Biden letter does contain one objective that is missing from FDR’s list: ensuring that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared, not just among regions (an earlier concern), but across racial, gender and economic lines. This was a challenge coming out of the war, of course, but only in the intervening decades has it risen high on the national agenda.
Bush’s report in response to FDR’s request was entitled Science: The Endless Frontier. This influential and visionary document was submitted to President Truman in July 1945. It called for a federal role in science—a role that continues today. Although President Lincoln had already created the U.S. National Academy of Science in 1863, and had fostered agricultural research through establishment of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in 1862, deeper federal involvement in directing and funding science was not common before WWII.
The Bush report clearly articulated the need for broader federal involvement in science. One section of the report was explicitly headed “Science is a Proper Concern of Government.” In the wake of the report’s release, federal support for science expanded far beyond agricultural research, importantly including the creation of the National Science Foundation. Ultimately, Science: The Endless Frontier led to the embedding of science and technology research in many federal agencies.
The Biden letter asks for something very similar—calling for “general strategies, specific actions, and new structures” to meet the twin challenges of global pandemics and global climate change. In responding to this request, Lander may wish longingly for the political and cultural environment in Vannevar Bush’s day:
- At the end of WWII, the U.S. was not just the global scientific leader (in part because of the talent that escaped from war-torn Europe). It was also the dominant economic power; much of Europe and Asia were in ruins.
- Working in the dominant scientific and economic country of the post-War period, U.S. scientists did not have to deal with a fear, all too common today, of being attacked for cooperative scientific work with colleagues in nations viewed as economic competitors.
- The Bush proposals were presented to a public that had greater trust in public institutions. There was no need to “protect scientific integrity within government.”
- Science: The Infinite Frontier was received in Washington, D.C, at a time of relative political stability. For all but two of the next eight years (when the Senate switched), the same party held the White House and enjoyed substantial majorities in both houses of Congress.
Now consider the stark contrast facing Lander:
- The U.S. has experienced a steep decline in public trust in government, a process that has been ongoing for at least the past 60 years. More recently, similar drops in confidence have been found in other public institutions, such as religious organizations, the medical establishment and news media.
- We now live in a time of “alternative facts,” the wielding of willful ignorance as a political tool, and widespread belief in QAnon and other conspiracies. Moreover, misinformation and disinformation can now be rapidly disseminated to millions of citizens via the internet.
- Making matters still worse, a huge gap exists between the two major U.S. political parties in their trust in science and scientists. Crucial scientific issues—for example, the efficacy of different COVID-19 intervention strategies and the reality and seriousness of climate change—are viewed through powerful political lenses.
The incoming administration understands clearly the challenge of sustaining American science and directing its power to the frontiers of most urgent need. The president’s intense focus on this task is evident from his public statements and from his selection of Lander—a distinguished life scientist, research leader and teacher—as the director of OSTP. Biden’s unprecedented decision to elevate that office to Cabinet-level status also sends a clear signal: after four years in the wilderness, science matters again.
This is good news, but executive actions by President Biden will not be enough. Restoring trust in science, and using science to tackle the most pressing problems facing humanity, is a job for all of us, not for politicians or scientists alone.
FDR called for policy informed by data and scientific analysis, U.S. global leadership in science, and the use of science to improve public health. We echo those calls. We add to them the call to use science to shape a sustainable future for our planet. As we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, individual health depends on the health of our communities, our society, our scientific institutions and our government. Likewise, the health of our country is inextricably linked to the health of our planet’s climate system. We will not be well if our planet is on life support.
This is an opinion and analysis article.