The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

The View from America After WWII

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Director of his wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush, requesting a plan to keep up the high pace of innovation set during the conflict in the coming peace (though Roosevelt, no Fukuyama he, could certainly see new clouds on the horizon). A copy of the letter can be found online. A short excerpt:

“There is, however, no reason why the lessons to be found in this experiment cannot be profitably employed in times of peace. The information, the techniques, and the research experience developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in the universities and in private industry, should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.”

Bush put forward recommendations that ultimately led to the creation of the National Science Foundation. His report, from 1945, makes for very interesting reading. We can see the “great strides” of science and medicine in the first half of the Twentieth Century:

“We have taken great strides in the war against disease. The death rate for all diseases in the Army, including overseas forces, has been reduced from 14.1 per thousand in the last war to 0.6 per thousand in this war. In the last 40 years life expectancy has increased from 49 to 65 years, largely as a consequence of the reduction in the death rates of infants and children.”

Less happily, we can also see how far we have to go, as this is no doubt true of cancer and heart disease today: “The annual deaths from one or two diseases far exceed the total number of American lives lost in battle during this war.” Other, more mundane, but still important, laments could be in any state-of-research report today: “Meanwhile, the cost of medical research has been rising.” Needless to say, these problems and opportunities are not restricted to the US.

Bush also helped launch the American government’s push into information science. Completely lost in today’s sea of infantile propaganda about the sole role of the private sector in innovation- one cannot open a newspaper (or news site) without reading of virtuous angel investors and daring 21 year old CEOs- is how much of the computer revolution was conceived in public laboratories (to be fair, we leftie liberals try to ignore how big a role the US Department of Defense played in all this). Bush wrote an article in The Atlantic, in 1945, pointing out the ever-increasing volume of technical and scientific knowledge, and the need for fast, and, in today’s language, hyper-linked information. He was an optimist. “It would be a brave man who would predict that such a process will always remain clumsy, slow, and faulty in detail.”

Science is, if anything, more critical to progress today than in FDR and Bush’s time. Information science has crept into every corner of our lives, from egg-timers with microprocessors that would surely strike a 1945 electric engineer as magical (in the Arthur Clarke sense*), to experiments in quantum entanglement that strike us as magic. It would be too much to expect an FDR and a Bush (how odd to use that name in a positive way). That is to be expected. What is odd, to keep analogies American, is that it seems to be too much to expect a Gerald Ford… and so it is that in one week we learn that on one side of the Atlantic, Congress is making it illegal to give scientific advice to the government (!); and on the other, a man whose major talent seems to be enabling tax evasion on an epic, coked-out Cecil B DeMille scale, has launched his tenure at the head of Europe by eliminating the role of science advisor.

*”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


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