A short presidential reading list

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Science  21 Oct 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6310, pp. 265
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal2121

A new U.S. president will be sworn into office in less than 3 months. Because scientific issues cut across many aspects of modern life, in both the public and private sectors, the president has several challenges. He or she must ensure that the government has access to robust advice about scientific issues to guide policy development. The president must select, and the U.S. Senate must confirm, the leaders for agencies with a substantial science focus. Finally, the new president must set the tone regarding the importance of science in the nation's progress. Two short, 70-year-old documents outline many central issues that are still relevant today.


“…these…documents…lay out principles for the importance of science in society…”

The advisory role of science in the administration is held by the president's science adviser (formally, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Policy). President Franklin Roosevelt established a precursor to this position during World War II with the appointment of Vannevar Bush as head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Bush was an engineer who had been a cofounder of the American Appliance Company (which later became the Raytheon Company), a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He is perhaps best known as the author of two seminal documents.

In 1945, Bush delivered “Science, The Endless Frontier”* as a report requested by President Roosevelt (likely at Bush's urging). This treatise detailed a compelling vision for the role of science in society, especially for basic science funded by the federal government. After an introduction, its subsequent chapters present many key elements of governmental science policy: “The War Against Disease” emphasizes the importance of broad and basic studies, as well as coordinated attacks on specific diseases; “Science and the Public Welfare” describes the role of science for job creation and the importance of academic basic research to complement research in industry; “Renewal of Our Scientific Talent” highlights the importance of training and recruiting talent in a manner that includes men, women, and those with limited economic means; “A Problem of Scientific Reconversion” describes the challenges of scientists transitioning from wartime to peacetime research and the open publication of scholarly results; and “The Means to the End” lists five principles for federal support of basic research with no expectation of immediate practical results, and concludes with a detailed outline for creating the National Research Agency. “Science, The Endless Frontier” presented a thoughtful outline for science in peacetime and, although many features of it were not implemented, its recommendations were reflected in the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950.

In 1945, Bush also published “As We May Think” in a popular magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. This strikingly prescient essay presents a crisp vision for the roles of machines in information storage and computation, and the need to convert large amounts of information into useful knowledge. Many features of his picture have come true—mostly in the past decade. Bush presented his ideas to inspire the citizenry to think about science and technology as a path to improving their futures, both with respect to extant tasks and futuristic ones.

As the president-elect considers many of the nation's challenges related to science, I have a simple suggestion: Read these two Vannevar Bush documents. They lay out principles for the importance of science in society, the interactions between academic and industrial science, the compelling nature of scientific discovery, and the importance of thinking with a long time horizon. This will provide a strong framework for selecting key leaders for the next administration and for being a good consumer of the information and advice that they provide. It will be an hour or two well spent.

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