States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order

By Sheila Jasanoff | Go to book overview
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Reconstructing sociotechnical order

Vannevar Bush and US science policy

Michael Aaron Dennis


In July 1945, Vannevar Bush, head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) presented to President Harry S. Truman a report entitled Science: The Endless Frontier (SEF). Long viewed as the origin of American science policy, both the report and its author are mythic figures in the history of American science and technology. No government document with respect to science and technology possesses such talismanic value. By comparison, Henry Smyth's Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, released after the use of the atomic bomb and containing a far more sober understanding of the political problems posed by wartime research, vanished into libraries and used bookstores. 1 After fifty years, reporters, politicians and science policy analysts speak of the “Bush report” as if its meaning and consequences remain self-evident and significant. As the late Donald Stokes observed, part of the problem lay in the success with which the report's language, especially the concept of “basic research”, effectively colonized the organization of postwar scientific research and technological development. 2 Supplementing, but not entirely replacing the language of pure and applied science - a language implicitly equating application with corruption - Bush's report and its novel intellectual taxonomy made government funding of academic research in the physical and biomedical sciences essential for national security and long-term economic growth.

Linguistic success had no organizational counterpart; the National Science Foundation (NSF) of 1950 bore little resemblance to Bush's National Research Foundation. The difference between the foundation of the report and the one of the ultimate enabling legislation represented a profound defeat for Bush in the struggles over the postwar organization of American research and development. In a path-breaking article, Daniel J. Kevles located the Bush report in divergent understandings of the relationship between science and society. 3 For Kevles, Bush's foundation was the American scientific elite's response to West Virginia Senator Harley S. Kilgore's plans for socially responsible science along with the geographical distribution of research funds. The prospect of non-scientists, especially politicians, directing research was anathema to Bush and other members of the wartime administrative elite. Other scholars, most notably Nathan Reingold, have followed the main lines of Kevles' “political reading”, although disagreement remains over


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States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order


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