How Harry Truman Might Just Save Our Ass, Again

The NSF headquarters in Alexandria, VA. It houses 1200 employees, and is responsible for spending the nearly $7 Billion it receives annually from the US government.

Taken in the lobby of the National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, VA.

To what extent should public opinion dictate the direction of federally funded scientific research?  Do we trust ourselves to make these choices, or should we put it in the hands of those with strict scientific backgrounds? When scientific advancements are made with federal dollars, who owns the patents?  Should the market naturally dictate the direction of scientific progress? Or, by spreading federal research dollars over a wider range of universities, small business, and interests, would we be socializing a largely independent sector of the economy? In short, should the government pursue scientific advancement through the eyes of a socialist or a capitalist? 

These were just some of the questions being addressed before the National Science Foundation (NSF) was created in 1950.  It has since grown to command a budget of over $7B, and is the only U.S. federal agency with a mandate to support all  (non-medical) fields of scientific research and education.

Even at its inception, the NSF was not the primary funding source of government funded research.  The National Institutes of Health, and Atomic Energy Commission were just a few of the nearly 40 scientific organizations the US government created between 1910-1940 (NASA came in 1957 after the Soviet launch of Spudnick).  America’s scientific infrastructure was fragmented, decentralized, and market-driven, but yet was still not meeting the needs of a pre-WWII America (take the rubber shortage, for example).  Lawmakers knew something had to be done, but could not come to a consensus on what approach should be taken: fragmented capitalist  or  centralized socialist.

Ironically, Harry Truman – a democrat who ended WWII and whose bills often faced opposition from many conservative lawmakers, would concede to a more fragmented, capitalist approach when  signing the NSF into law.   The NSF would only pursue scientific knowledge, while leaving the scientific applications to private sector, elite universities, and  a few specific agencies (e.g. NASA). This represented a victory for business as they had not only feared competition from the government, but were also worried that their patent protections would be wakened by a more centralized, socialist approach towards the advancement of science in the marketplace.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing, right or wrong, wasteful or altruistic?  I have no idea, and is beyond the scope of this post and the research I did for it.   What I do know is that I’m writing you today from McMurdo Station, Antarctica – a place funded by the NSF that sees no financial return from the science that takes place here.   We spend about $400M a year to staff, support, and conduct science at our 3 year-round research stations, and multiple seasonal field camps.  Could this money be better spent elsewhere? Perhaps, but I know come 2041, when the Antarctic Treaty expires,  and this continent’s land and resources potentially (or, probably) come up for grabs, we’ll at least have the infrastructure and expertise in place to thrive in, and have influence over the most uninhabitable and last resource-rich place on earth.  And when this happens – much like the yet foreseen benefits of scientific knowledge – we’ll all be damn glad that we have it.

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