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A HALF-CENTURY OF SCIENCE
Illumination Salutes the National Science Foundation On Its Golden Anniversary

By Jessica Larson

In many ways, every edition of Illumination is a celebration of the National Science Foundation. Back in 1997, for example, our first ever magazine cheered NSF's recognition of MU's successful integration of research and teaching. Later issues have applauded the foundation's career grants to impressive young scholars; noted NSF-funded efforts to unravel the genetic code of our state's most important cash crops; and praised the foundation's assistance to scholars working to help under-represented minority students succeed in the sciences. More recently, Illumination has examined NSF's backing of MU engineers who are designing buildings that can stand up to terrorist bomb attacks.

 

Illumination Magazine cover

As it prepares to mark its 50th birthday the National Science Foundation has, in fact, become so closely identified with University-based research that it is difficult to imagine intellectual life on the Columbia campus without it. As it should be, says Missouri's senior U.S. Senator, Christopher 'Kit' Bond.

"There has been tremendous work done at the University of Missouri-Columbia using university based research funds," Bond continues. "It's my job to make sure that support for NSF remains strong. In my committee we have significantly increased the foundation's budget -in fact, with the exception of the National Institutes of Health, the NSF has received the greatest support compared to other research funding agencies. Congress has recognized, and I expect will continue to recognize, the importance that NSF research has had on our nation's economic competitiveness and our quality of life."

Nevertheless, when Missouri's only occupant of the White House, President Harry S. Truman, signed the bill creating the NSF on May 10, 1950, there was little agreement on how government might best support university research, or whether the NSF would even survive the administration that created it.

From the outset, however, one thing was clear to almost everyone: Technological advances on the battlefronts of Europe and Asia had shown that a revolution in the sciences was at hand. Only the United States had emerged from the fighting with the resources necessary to lead it.

Male scientist

"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," wrote Truman's predecessor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a letter to Vannevar Bush, his most trusted scientific advisor.

Bush had long urged the president to write such a letter. And when FDR asked Bush how the continuation of wartime scientific cooperation might translate into peacetime prosperity, Bush saw his chance to realize a life-long dream: the creation of an agency devoted to "pure science." Bush outlined his vision in an eloquent report. Entitled Science: The Endless Frontier, the document is widely credited for laying the intellectual foundations for today's NSF. It was recently named one of the "Top 100 Science Books of the Century" by American Scientist magazine.

The Endless Frontier called for the creation of a National Research Foundation, an independent agency that would set the nation's science policy, oversee all government-sponsored scientific activity (both civilian and military ) and award grants to academic scientists working on self-directed basic research. The document attempted to do nothing short of revolutionizing American science policy. It's visionary conclusion? Scientific discovery is so important to our nation's future that the prevailing status quo must be turned on its head: Instead of science serving government, government must now serve science.

"What Bush wanted to convey about the role of basic research in the progress of American science and technology is as appropriate today as it was in 1945," says former NSF historian George Mazuzan. "He emphasized that the frontier of science is always present and in keeping with the American tradition should be exploited for the good of the nation."

Champions of basic research have long argued that short-term utility is a poor criterion for identifying areas worthy of scientific pursuit; that, in the words of Nobel laureate John Polanyi, "useful outcomes are best identified after the making of discoveries, rather than before." Yet phrases such as "independent" and "self-directed" immediately raised accountability concerns among the nation's lawmakers, including its new president, Harry S. Truman. Opposition to Bush's report also came from scientists who feared government support of academic research smacked of "collectivism." In short order Congress shelved Bush's report, and his hopes for a National Research Foundation.

Female scientist

 

All images courtesy of Illumination Magazine.

Though deeply suspicious of any plan that might bypass White House control of the nation's scientific agenda, Truman was in fact an enthusiastic supporter of federal support for the sciences. He appointed his own team, led by John R. Steelman, to come up with a new plan more in keeping with his own vision. Steelman's report, entitled Science and Public Policy, wasn't as mellifluous as Bush's Endless Frontier. But at the dawn of the nuclear age, its exhaustive, analytical treatment of how government might best use research to further the national interest did much to make Bush's visionary scheme more workable. Under Steelman's plan, endorsed by Truman, the agency leading government funding of university-based research would be called the National Science Foundation.

Vannevar Bush, meanwhile, remained incensed that his dream had been shoved aside. So too were Republican lawmakers. It thus came as little surprise that, after sweeping both houses of Congress in the 1946 election, House and Senate Republicans quickly passed legislation resurrecting the idea of a National Research Foundation. As called for in the Bush report, the bill stipulated that the new research foundation would coordinate federal support for "pure science" conducted by the nation's "best researchers" as selected by an independent civilian board. Truman vetoed the measure in 1947, insisting that the science foundation's director and its board must be "responsible to the people;" i.e., to the people's president.

After his surprise reelection, and five years of contentious debate on the nature of national science policy, Truman finally had his way. The birth of the National Science Foundation didn't occur without more political wrangling - it was approved by a Congress that at times seemed determined to undermine its effectiveness-but throughout its difficult early years its mission remained unchanged: to encourage basic research in the sciences.

MU researchers soon took advantage. The University's first NSF grant was awarded to Arthur Laufer, a physicist researching the formation and collapse of bubbles created by sound waves. Hundreds of other MU scientists and graduate students have since benefited from NSF grants and scholarships. Over the past two decades alone, NSF has awarded more that $66 million in NSF grants to fund studies in biology, chemistry, engineering, math and social sciences.

Ed Coe, a professor of agronomy and a plant geneticist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, is among the most prominent beneficiaries. The five-year Missouri Maize Project that Coe leads -a task force dedicated to providing the infrastructure that may one day help plant scientists crack corn's genetic code - received a $11 million grant from NSF two years ago. It was the largest competitive research grant in MU's history.

"If you have available these tools and the knowledge that accompanies them, you can better understand how the organism works," Coe says when asked about the foundation's interest in his work. "Knowledge is power, I guess is what I'm saying."

And sharing that knowledge is more powerful still. Rita Colwell, the marine microbiologist who currently heads the NSF, is a frequent visitor to the MU campus. While acknowledging that the funding of senior researchers such as Coe is crucial, she's most excited about MU's efforts to bring along younger scientists and scholars.

"It augurs well for the future of MU to attract such bright, competent, and talented graduate students and junior faculty," said Colwell during an interview conducted via that most ubiquitous of federal research successes, the Internet. "MU - like other research institutions - has only begun to capitalize on the many ways we can link research with education."

Meera Chandrasekhar, an MU physics professor, knows exactly what Colwell means. In 1997 she received a $900,000 NSF grant to help train young women for life in an increasingly scientific society.

"There is a severe lack of women in the physical sciences," Chandrasekhar says. "But I think there's something more crucial than that, which is that women do not seem to take physical science courses, or they feel it's not something they can do if they do take the course. It cuts them out of a lot of work fields."

Chandrasekhar has used her grant to develop programs that help elementary and secondary school girls build confidence in their ability to handle the hard sciences.

In addition to research and training, NSF has long encouraged scientist to take an interest in the administration of research support programs-often by working for the NSF. Su-Shing Chen, head of MU's Computer Engineering and Computer Science department, signed on as NSF's program director for the mathematical sciences division in 1983. He next ran the foundation's computer science division for one year in the mid-1980s. Finally, Chen signed on in 1991 to coordinate computer-related communications work, eventually spearheading the foundation's "digital libraries" program from 1993 to 1995.

"I would encourage other faculty members at MU to work for the National Science Foundation. It was a good experience - very rewarding. It opens our scientific horizon," Chen says, adding that work as an NSF insider only deepened his appreciation for what the foundation has to offer MU and the nation. Chen is even willing to credit NSF with helping to fuel America's post-Cold War economic boom. And what might Vannevar Bush think on the occasion of the NSF's 50th birthday? "That we have realized his dream," Chen says.

 

Charles Reineke assisted in the preparation of this story

Article courtesy of Illumination Magazine, Spring 2000. Illumination is published by the Office of Research of the University of Missouri-Columbia (www.research.missouri.edu). The magazine samples the research scholarship and creative achievement of MU faculty, staff and students from a broad range of disciplines. It is funded by patent income derived from the research conducted at the University of Missouri-Columbia. MU is an equal opportunity/ADA institution.

Last Modified: Mar 28, '03