Is this the end of the “endless frontier”?

This fall I attended the annual meeting of chief academic officers representing the 62 institutions belonging to the Association of American Universities (AAU). Each year, we are asked about what keeps us awake at night. This year, Martin Schmidt, provost of MIT, answered with one word: China. There are many potential reasons for his answer, but it was meant to capture the increasing competition from China, and other countries, in producing high-quality research, particularly basic research, and in offering increasingly competitive education modeled after the success of the American university. What is the model that has served us so well, and why is it the envy of the world?

The model dates back to 1945 and Vannevar Bush’s report, Science: The Endless Frontier. Addressing the report to President Harry Truman, Bush, then director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote, “Government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth.” He referred to the “endless frontier” of knowledge and concomitant benefit to society and the nation. At that point, the nation was coming out of a war effort heavily supported by extraordinary advances in science and technology — from cryptology to radar, to guidance systems and nuclear weapons. Much of that new science was due to the contributions of universities, their faculty, and students.

Science: The Endless Frontier talks about science as essential to economic growth and well-being. Indeed, economic growth since then has been largely driven by new science translated to new technology. For example, search engines that drive the internet, targeted therapies based on our knowledge of the human genome, cellphones, hurricane forecasts with many days of lead time, and GPS all resulted from fundamental scientific breakthroughs. The report talks about war against disease. We have come a long way, but there is so much to learn related to Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, Ebola, the still-prevalent and debilitating impact of malaria, and cancer.

It also speaks to national security. Suffice to say that more than ever we are not only subject to nuclear threats but, increasingly, also to cyber threats. Bush advocated that we must renew our scientific talent — a need that is now particularly critical as the first two generations of scientists after the publication of his report are no longer with us, retired or about to do so. It should be clear that the policies and ideas of Endless Frontier are as relevant now as they were 70 years ago.

Unfortunately, our national commitment to the principles developed in that extraordinary document has changed and has been on this slippery slope for some time. I would argue that the erosion of commitment to the Endless Frontier ideals began with the Clinton administration report Science in the National Interest that was touted as the successor to Bush’s report but significantly changed the conversation by using the tagline “Science: The Endless Resource,” the difference being an ambitious reach versus a utilitarian pragmatism. With some ups and downs, the reality is that federal science policy has been adrift ever since.

In a paper years ago, I wrote, “I believe that the nation can ill afford to continue in a state of confusion relative to its engineering and science policy. We are eating our seed corn, consuming a backlog of science and technology innovation. The establishment cannot sit for long and wait to see what will happen next. It behooves academia, government, and industry to quickly settle on a stable policy that will allow us to get back to the business we do best: educating the best engineers and scientists, and producing the seeds of innovation that drive the technological markets of the future.”  I believe that still rings true, perhaps now more than ever. For our part, the scholarship at Georgia Tech will continue. And, we must continue to demonstrate the importance of research universities in creating new knowledge and in fueling American innovation.

-Rafael L. Bras

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