Nothing is more galling to scientists than outsiders questioning their research priorities. Witness the indignation of several leading physicists when the superconducting supercollider project was axed in 1993, or, more recently, the outrage expressed by members of the biomedical research community at being stymied in their pursuit of human embryonic stem-cell research. Beneath the research community’s sense of entitlement lies a deeply rooted fact about science policy: Since World War II, the United States has socialized the costs of scientific research without socializing its governance.
But given the powerful influences science and technology exert on society, shouldn’t the public be given a greater role in shaping science’s agenda? Even before Hiroshima seared an awareness of the powers of science in the American mind, New Deal policy-makers had begun answering in the affirmative. Their attempts have renewed relevance today, as military imperatives reassert their influence through bioterrorism and missile defense research, and as academia’s courtship of industry imperils what little public accountability exists in science.
The cause of democratic science was first championed in the early 1940s by freshman senator Harley Kilgore. Described as a “round faced gum-chewing man,” Kilgore introduced a bill intended to reverse what he perceived as corporate domination of research and to give the public an important role in directing the course of science. The centerpiece of his bill was a provision that called for creating a large, pan-scientific federal agency to coordinate and conduct both basic and applied research. In line with Kilgore’s New Deal commitments, his agency would be governed by a board of directors that included one representative each of labor, agriculture, consumer and industry interests, in addition to two scientists.
Not surprisingly, Kilgore’s proposal to grant scientists only a minority stake in their new agency was met with consternation by much–though not all–of the scientific community. Their response was led by Vannevar Bush. A Yankee Republican with angular features, Bush maintained close ties with large corporations and was an accomplished dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As head of the country’s wartime science agency, he also enjoyed considerable clout as the spokesman for American science. Bush parried Kilgore by appointing an advisory committee of scientists to furnish the President with recommendations on science research policy. The resulting manifesto, Science, the Endless Frontier, argued for a well-budgeted peacetime scientific agency that would jealously preserve the authority and agenda-setting autonomy of an elite scientific community.
A six-year tug of war between Bush and Kilgore ensued. As wartime government contracts were transferred to various agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the dream of a centralized science agency evaporated, and the resulting National Science Foundation emerged in 1950 with an almost inconsequential budget and limited jurisdiction over peacetime scientific research. Though both Bush and Kilgore lost the battle, Bush, having helped win the war, nevertheless won the science war as well. His report soon became the canticle for a postwar science policy that has generally left the governance of science to the scientists. Kilgore, sad to say, is remembered (to quote his Times obituary) as “one of the most tireless idea men in the Senate…the fact that his solutions were almost unanimously ignored by his colleagues never seemed to daunt him.”