Models of state research spending: Vannevar Bush v Mike Mansfield

A new statement from Ireland’s Science Advisory Counsel calls for an exploration of how “Ireland can maximise the revenue potential of its investment in STI”. The Irish Science Advisory Counsel is composed of senior figures in industry and research including Sean Baker of IONA and Roger Whatmore of the Tyndall Institute. The question coming to the fore is to what extent should Government direct strategic research funding to advance the national economic interest? Two examples worth examining for its pros and cons is the post war US  model established by Vannevar Bush, and also the countervailing approach that embodied in the Mansfield Amendment introduced of 1969.

This in part forms a background to the book on the history of the Internet.

As the end of the Second World War drew near, political, military and scientific leaders paused to consider the transition to peacetime. The significance of the moment was not lost on President Roosevelt. He wrote to the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Vannevar Bush, in late 1944 saying,

New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.

Having harnessed a scientific dynamo to win the War, Roosevelt believed there was

no reason why the lessons to be found in this experiment cannot be profitably employed in times of peace. … [for the] improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.

A practical question followed in the President’s letter:

What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations? … The proper roles of public and of private research, and their interrelation, should be carefully considered. … so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

In response, Bush consulted the senior scientists in the nation and drafted a report for the President that established the U.S. strategic research environment in the post-WW2 era. He identified a challenge that he called ‘a problem of scientific reconversion’.

For more than 5 years … [w]e have been directing the energies of our scientists to the development of weapons and materials and methods, on a large number of relatively narrow projects. … Like troops, the scientists have been mobilized, and thrown into action to serve their country in time of emergency. But they have been diverted to a greater extent than is generally appreciated from the search for answers to the fundamental problems – from the search on which human welfare and progress depends.

The report, entitled Science: the endless frontier, outlined how the United States should transition to peacetime research and education, and among other things, proposed the establishment of what would become the National Science Foundation, an organization which would have an important role in the development of the Internet in the future.

Openness and cross disciplinary study were at the heart of Bush’s recommendations. He told the President that the wartime conditions of secrecy and contained and isolated pockets of research be abandoned in as far as was possible. Knowledge generated during the war should be opened up for wider application. By passing cutting edge research from military to civil agencies, the scientific war effort could be applied to peacetime problems. In these recommendations, a trend that continues to fuel Internet development in the present day is articulated. Bush adhered to the principle that the open and broad diffusion of knowledge was an accelerant of learning. Bush, though he believed in the need for Federal support of research, was against direct Government control over research.

The Bush model, coupled with massive funding for research in the wave of the Sputnik scare, and the appointment of Neil McElroy as Secretary of Defense in 1957, allowed Government to support basic research through organisations including the NSF, ARPA, RAND etc.

Yet while Bush had viewed research funding as the entitlement of good researchers, irrespective of their areas of focus, one senator thought differently three decades later. In 1969, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield argued to the contrary. He was the author of Section 203 of the Military Procurement Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1970. This “Mansfield Amendment” stipulated that all funded research must have a ‘direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation’, including basic research. Mansfield’s intention was to cut 400 $million from the research budget. Thereafter research organisations such as ARPA, which were effected by Section 203, had to be rather more careful about the nature of basic research, and far more specific about the type of applied research, that they undertook.

By the time the Mansfield Amendment and its impact had percolated through the system to make a real impact on ARPA funding, the Agency was supporting internetworking of leased land-lines (ARPANET), packet radio net (PRNET), and satellite (SATNET) networks.  This had a practical application and involved bringing computing resources to the battlefield among other things, which meant that the Mansfield Amendment would have no impact on it. However, if the Amendment had been in effect half a decade earlier when ARPA was taking its first steps into digital networking, might it have prevented ARPA from developing the first ARPANET, and in so doing jeopardised the development of the Internet?

The Mansfield Amendment may have been a hindrance to far sighted basic research, yet the Bush model may have assumed a too liberal approach to state research funding. One question in the Irish context might be whether to follow the Bush or Mansfield model, or whether there is a comfortable balance in the middle.

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