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Science—The Endless Frontier: An Important Anniversary

By Anthony (Bud) Rock

In the closing months of 1944, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that the conclusion of a devastating world war was imminent. He had the foresight to commission a study focused on broad dissemination of wartime scientific accomplishments, designed to stimulate new enterprises and encourage the development of scientific talent in U.S. youth.

With peace and prosperity in mind, President Roosevelt wrote, “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.”

In July 1945 (70 years ago this month), Presidential Science Advisor Vannevar Bush delivered to then-President Harry Truman the resulting report (of only 35 pages) that would emerge as an epic treatise, entitled Science—The Endless Frontier. The report spoke convincingly about the role of science in the public interest, the value of science in addressing the critical issues of the period (many of which continue to this day), the role of governments relative to the freedom of inquiry, the importance of adequate (and independent) sources of funding, and the imperative to cultivate a deep appreciation for science in a new generation. This is the document that inspired the establishment of the National Science Foundation and strengthened support for civilian research programs across the U.S. government. It also reminded all U.S. citizens that science is worthy of trust and respect and is, above all, an instrument of peace and hope for a bright future.

This report is widely credited with igniting a new sense of optimism about the potential of science in our lives. The years immediately following brought the space race, industrial development, and the continuous global effort to achieve health and environmental well-being.

On this 70th anniversary of the Vannevar Bush Report, we might argue that science centers and museums are maintaining that important responsibility to inspire the public about the power of science—and it is no longer a message belonging to one nation, but to all nations. The report did not tell us something that we did not know. It reminded us, very strongly, about what we did know and should not forget.

I do not believe that we are losing faith in science, but it is perhaps sometimes frayed around the edges. Nor are our youth any less interested in exploring the unknown—unless we somehow obscure their paths. But we might take this anniversary moment to recall the report’s message and draw continued strength from it in our efforts today.

Anthony (Bud) Rock is ASTC’s president and CEO.