Hope of Better Things

Vannevar Bush (1949) [emphasis added]:

The real reason we made such great progress was not bright inventors or clever gadgets.  It was the fact that we had thousands of men who understood the underlying science in the field, who skillfully practiced the necessary techniques, who were good gadgeteers.  They were in our universities, throughout industry, and in all sorts of queer places in the general population.  Enough of them were gathered together and saved from senseless expenditure in tasks far removed from their skills to do the job, all the way from the research laboratory through pilot manufacture and engineering design to mass manufacture and skillful use in the field.  We made great progress because we had the background for it. (244)

Bush describes the importance of the “rise of the automotive and radio industries” in preparing the way for the scientific and technological changes that were made in the second world war:

Still more far-reaching was the effect on the attitude and capabilities of the people.  The fact that there were literally millions of youngsters who could drive cars, or repair them, who could build their own radio sets and communicate as “hams” all over the world, a whole generation of competent resourceful mechanics and electricians, was the best insurance that could have been produced for the strength and safety of the nation in a world of modern war.  Every corner garage, every radio club, was a sort of center of training, training that could be readily transformed in a short time, when the test came, into ability to operate the complex implements of war.  Any explicit training camps, under military supervision, would need to be very intelligent indeed to beat it. (20)

These passages are from Bush’s little cited Modern Arms and Free Men, his account of how America mobilized its scientific capabilities during the second world war. While Science the Endless Frontier is cited (when anyone gets around to learning the history), Modern Arms is not. But the observations and argument laid out in Modern Arms is crucial to understanding what Bush envisioned for the National Research Foundation he proposed in Endless Frontier. In his transmittal letter to President Truman, Bush outlined what he had been asked to do in Endless Frontier:

In a letter dated November 17, 1944, President Roosevelt requested my recommendations on the following points:

(1) What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?

(2) With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?

(3) What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?

(4) Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

It is clear from President Roosevelt’s letter that in speaking of science that he had in mind the natural sciences, including biology and medicine, and I have so interpreted his questions. Progress in other fields, such as the social sciences and the humanities, is likewise important; but the program for science presented in my report warrants immediate attention.

In these brief points, much of the present policy and agenda for federal investments in research and innovation are laid out. We see dual use–transferring military developments for civilian use, the substantial emphasis on the biomedical sciences, the expenditure of government funds as research support, and support for education. The letter also makes clear that science is only a portion of the overall program, but that it is is Bush’s purpose to speak to the natural sciences. The bit concerning the humanities and social sciences–which also have skills and capabilities essential for building peaceful relationships and resolving disputes among countries, perhaps even of more importance than being able to “do the math” to precisely deposit bombs where diplomacy and trade have failed–has yet to be written and acted upon. That may be the most glaring of defects in present federal policy regarding innovation in the interests of security, health, jobs, and industry.

Bush, however, is asked what can be done to learn from the experience of mobilizing American talent during the war, for things that are not concerned with the war. We are living out, with variations, increasing dullness, and a disturbing lack of recognition, the outline of what Bush proposed:

We had, during the war, approximately thirty thousand men engaged in the innumerable teams of scientists and engineers who were working on new weapons, and new medicine.  We gathered the best team of hard-working and devoted men ever brought together, in my opinion, for such a task.  We spent half a billion dollars.  Congress gave us appropriations in lump sums and trusted us to decide on what projects to spend the money.  In uniform but without insignia, some of our men were on the battlefields and in the plans and ships in every theater of war.

Here we see the framework of teams of individuals, working for a coalition that decides on expenditures, without presenting detailed plans. In essence, the framework for a National Research Foundation, which though permuted became the National Science Foundation. The leadership of this research organization would decide how to spend the money, and in doing so confirm the trust placed in it by Congress. I hesitated about whether to include the last sentence of the paragraph, but on reflection, it is a critical point. The research effort did not operate aloof from the field, but had people everywhere in the field, reporting on needs, evaluating performance, experiencing and relying on the technology being deployed. This is not merely “technology transfer” and certainly the work is not even remotely done with a piece of paper headed “patent license” or money swapped. No, here it is an effort that spans research to reliance. Field-informed innovation:

At the same time, I watched a great democracy bend itself around this new development and give it life and meaning.   We contested with generals and admirals, but the new weapons were produced and used, and we wound up friendsWe argued among ourselves, but of roughly thirty-five men in the senior positions in the scientific war effort only one man was absent when the war ended, and this was because of illness.  We did a job that required fantastic secrecy, and yet we won and held the confidence and support of the military, the Congress, and the American people. We were a varied group with all sorts of backgrounds and prejudices, and yet we developed a team technique for pooling knowledge that worked. (7)

The challenge asked of Bush was, how to do this for peacetime work? How to mobilize science nationally (for others:  how to mobilize arts, humanities, and social sciences–the AHS)? How to create innovation relative to the status quo here, to foster security, health, and well-being, but without the immediate threat of war? Scientific expertise is brought into a relationship with the established order represented by the military. That expertise neither panders to the military, nor dictates to it:  it engages, it debates, it demonstrates, it wins over by proving out. This engagement, then, created and funded by government to push on its own status quo was the “new development” that the great democracy bent itself around and gave life and meaning to.

In a civilian context, however, what is the analog of the military? It is not merely “industry” because industry was as well part of the science expertise that Bush’s team assembled. It is not merely government, because the military is a distinctive kind of exercise of government, and the whole mandate is to find something other than the military to work with, to do this same thing. What is the status quo that such a team might push against? Who are the incumbent leaders of society, with the power to procure, to adopt, to implement, to sway the minds of many, who would engage such a team of expertise found in universities, industry, and queer places?  There is no simple analog, and this is the challenge. It is fundamental. It is serious. It is non-trivial. What is lost is the contesting with generals able to command massive resources and capable making decisions in which tens of thousands of lives and livelihoods, if not millions, and the fates of countries, bankers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and university faculty lives all hang in the balance. It is difficult to match martial arts, writ large, with anything merely corporate and profit-seeking. Perhaps the leaders of a world religion might come close. Certainly “science policymakers” do not. They are a management class without a queen bee.

Without the dialectic on great issues, issues that were substantive, not distant dusty ideals expressed in archaic language like “public benefit” and “stewardship” and “trust,” a great deal is lost for the conduct of science in the transition from war to peace.  In the scientific revolution, that dialectic was between science and religion, with the church playing the role of both supporter and disputant. The battles over the position of the earth in the universe, the circulation the blood, the role of dissection, the age of the earth, the origin of species and evolution, the concept of design and creation–these were hugely important for science, for they gave the issues substance. Feynman was right that birds need ornithology like scientists need philosophy of science, but no doubt he understood that science also needs great purpose and awareness of context. Bacon understood. His equation of science with charity is not empty rhetoric, but rather the necessary rhetoric to inform the choice of inquiry. Science at its best is conducted in the high style, and reported in the plain style.  The conduct in high style demands integrity, and communications in the low style lays out the facts and reasoning without reliance on spin, on cherry picking, on using quantitative figures of thought for persuasion, or to stifle inquiry.

Leaders have sought to address the problem by adopting the “war on” meme that Bush uses in Endless Frontier–the “war of science against disease.”  That meant “mobilize as if to war, upon a great theme so as to make it a priority and inspire cooperation among people who otherwise would be at odds or having nothing to do with one another.” Calling for interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration by contrast seems petty to the point of comic, like wanting a heroic play about a green grocer, a knight of the burning pestle. Only a deeply bureaucratic mind could hail a call for interdisciplinary research as if it were a call to arms, to acknowledge the deep themes of society, to find a bottom to the pond of the soul, and to live to act on that knowledge. Yes, the language drives toward the ideal, toward the poetic, but it is there that we place the statements of fundamental value. And not to have such values at all means there is no real dialectic to be had, a society utterly depleted, lacking the mental edge to aspire to anything much more than plays involving comic send ups of whatever values there might have once been.

President Kennedy addressed this problem of debate another way, with the announcement of the effort to put a man on the moon in less than a decade. That created a dialectic between science and NASA, an almost but not quite non DoD agency. Again there was funding made available for the purpose, and teams of scientists, engineers, designers, mechanics, and powdered orange juice manufacturers contested with NASA directors, and something came of it, something that worked and accomplished the purpose. I have been told stories about how secretaries at NASA research centers kept $50K in cash in their desks so that if engineers needed something cheap for the Apollo program, they could just go pay cash. Imagine a university department having that sort of funding situation, to just get on with it, with enough riding on the outcome that no one would think that the money would be spent inappropriately. To be there, though, one has to have policies of confidence, not fear, and one has to be involved with great challenges, not merely puffy rhetoric for the masses that is privately mocked.

The success of NASA was no “war of science against space.” It may have been a nationalistic race against the Soviet Union, representing a trial by performance of forms of government, but it wasn’t a war–but an analog for war that met much of what Bush was asked to imagine in the mobilization of science. The idea of nationalistic races now appears to be to churn out more engineering graduates than China does, again, petty as far as any debate about what science needs to do its work.

More valuable, despite the problems, is the dialectic over the use of fetal stem cells, or the environmental hazards of nanotechnology or GMO foods–which are also moral hazards, and social hazards as these tools are used to disenfranchise not merely workers but entire units of society, like the family farm (itself in its ubiquity in the American west, the work of enterprising transcontinental railroad executives looking for something that they could be paid to haul long distances, to justify federal subsidies and land grants to build the railroads in the first place–given that the lucrative contracts to haul goods for the Civil War were gone). Even intelligent design, mocked by much of the scientific community, has a role to play, as it brings science into the realm of deep themes. But more so, such debates push science to explore what is not obvious. Ways to develop stem cells other than harvesting them from aborted fetuses came about as a result of such dialectic.

Think of it this way–much of what we “know” in science is actually rather wrong. We at times acknowledge that. We know what we observe and rely upon, but our explanations, we admit, are only so good, and may be totally off. Some explanations are, however, accepted and one can hold them and not be mocked. Other explanations, however, are stupid and may be mocked at will. Thus were mocked washing hands to prevent infections at childbirth, continents “drifting,” and the source of stomach ulcers being a bacterium. It’s easy to mock out-of-favor explanations. It’s much more difficult to accept how much we don’t know, but for our favorite and probably wrong explanations.

The premises of such debates over explanations are not scientific. There is nothing in the “science” of science policy that supports a claim that non-science registers must be excluded or suppressed, either in the practice of “science” or generally. There is no reason for such debates to be “science based”–though there is plenty of reason for the debates to consider the results, and the uncertainties, offered by science. As President Eisenhower argued, there is a necessary, essential role for the non-technical, the non-“elite” in shaping society, and even science.  J.S. Mill argued as much in On Liberty. (Among other things: “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”)

A technological elite needs no special standing to dictate our affairs to the rest of us, even as we do not accept such demands from a totalitarian regime. Vannevar Bush argues a similar point:

On the one hand is an absolute state, holding its people in subjection and molding them for conquest by force or trickery.  On the other, there is hope of better things. (8)

The “hope of better things” is not an affair of science. It is an affair of the spirit, of those values and inspirations that come from the ability to imagine the possibility of better things.  And better things means not merely better gadgets, sold at a profit, but things to do for which gadgets might serve a role. Envisioning a future with hope is utterly outside the scope of science, though not outside the capability of scientists–and many others.  A training in science does not improve on hope of better things, but can provide more possibilities for that hope to play across. Cultivating hope, providing it with structure and scope, is also a task for a liberal education, for the AHS. It is not so much that there are two cultures, as C.P. Snow has it, as that there is a prospect for dialectic between hope and living out that hope, and in doing that living, having a choice of tools.  Science opens out possibilities for hope, and technology provides tools–not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily exclusive to science and technology. The research enterprise we have today is in large part a living out of a hope for something better, for which Vannevar Bush became one of the key pivot points in American research policy, as a result, largely, of the accident, and catastrophe, of a global war.

In addition to the need for dialectic on great themes with an organization prepared both to engage the debate and to act consequentially on its outcomes, Bush also identifies another characteristic of the American experience with science in the war, and that is of the available, capable population of “youngsters,” of “gadgeteers.” These gadgeteers were critical to the implementation of science innovation in the war.  They were not college graduates, certainly not STEM graduates all–they were hobbyists, they were amateurs: “a whole generation of competent resourceful mechanics and electricians.” They were kids who worked on cars and built radios. That was my experience, too, growing up, building a radio with my father, who was teaching radar just after the war, before he went to college, before he made a biomedical invention in graduate school, before he became a physics professor, before he sat next to Richard Feynman at a conference, where Feynman turned to him and said, “I’m Feynman.” What America had was a generation of kids with the time to play at new things, and access to them. They learned before they needed a “STEM” education in college. They were grease-monkeys and tube heads. They learned from their parents and each other how to make things, how things worked. They were not headed for research careers advised by well meaning administrative counselors. They were way ahead, and away from such stuff, prepared for events a counselor could not imagine. Bush describes one:

During the second war, for example, on radio “ham,” whose formal education had been limited to grammar school, helped fight from a laboratory.  He was a mechanic; before that he had worked in a spool mill; his father had been killed in a sawmill accident when the boy was four years old.  He had picked up his knowledge of radio while he made his living, just as millions of other American boys still do. He became the principal designer in this country of magnetrons.  A magnetron is a type of thermionic tube in which part of the control is magnetic, and it is the very heart of radar.  He can talk today with Nobel Prize physicists, and can understand them and tell them things they want to know. (20)

The precondition for contributing is not a college degree, but play with things that become useful based on events. This is in part outlier territory, where events create the lucky, like those who played with computers and software in the 1970s and found themselves making companies like Microsoft and Apple, not because they were smarter or worked harder, but because they were there, at a time when there happened. The events that make folks lucky in this way are not anticipated.  What can be anticipated is having a generation of youth with the opportunity to play with the materials that might come to be something later.  Not a waste of time. Not a failure to be practical. Necessary to national defense, to our economic future, to technological innovation. That may be the case as much today for video games–think physics engines and strategies–as for 3d printing and CNC routers. It is not that we need these things in college curriculum–sure, fine–but rather we need these things more broadly and sooner than that, like we had public libraries, and garages where kids worked on cars, back in the days when radio shack was a way cool room, not a brand.

Part of Bush’s challenge, then, is to figure out what else might be seeded, beyond the skills to make cars and radios, and later, software and computer stuff. How does the hobby of technological capability come about, fueled early in life by the hope of something better?  Clearly the Thomas Gradgrind approach is not going to do it (“‘Fact, fact, fact,’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind,” Dickens’ hated teacher of science). Bush turns his attention to biomedical sciences, arguing that advances in biology will stimulate advances in medicine:

There is no more fascinating field, especially to a keen youngster, than the science of life in all its breadth; there is no area of intellectual opportunity more absorbing.

Bush recites discoveries of antibiotics, chemistry of proteins and vitamins, genetics, and

the ways in which crops and animals may be molded and controlled for our use.  The science of genetics enables us to alter species at our will; it will enable us to create new species for our benefit. (245)

Love for  frankenscience, unabashed. Where is my talking dog? Bush, despite the dialectic to come, understands the potential.

All this would be fascinating to a youngster, if he knew about it.  We can probably never create the same atmosphere that obtained in radio–where there was an amateur expert in every block.  But we can certainly create in this country a sound, broad, biological science with a host of professional and amateur adherents.  To do so is to do much.  It is to open up to many men intellectual opportunities of the highest order. . . .   To accomplish all this we need first to clear the way for the really talented youngster to go to the top in the profession, there to become the research man,the teacher of others, the leader in new industries.  (246)

This is just one instance of the kind of opportunities that Bush envisioned. We see around us the consequences, with the federal government’s largest outlays for university research in biomedicine, with university patent licensing offices devoted almost exclusively to biotech inventions, all but ignoring in their hiring practices, their policy statements, and their operating assumptions revolutions in semiconductors, computer systems, networks, software, nanotechnology, mobile communications, horizontal drilling, and power generation, to name a few areas of inattention. My argument is that ironically this inattention has been a great thing, as it has managed to prevent university bureaucrats from interfering in the development of such things as the internet, and the web, and apps.

The important thing, however, is not that science is to be popularized, nor even that somehow we need to have a scientifically and technologically literate society so that it can deal with the complexities of science and technology–as Carl Sagan emphasized, and of course which is also important. The insight Bush offers is that we create environments that permit capability before and alongside formal training. His is not a call to create curriculum or to dumb down the fine work of established science, to be drilled into youngsters to permit tests of memory for which teachers and schools get rewarded with federal funding. The argument, bluntly, is for one of serious play–with access to things worth playing with, with the time and resources to be able to play, and with the prospect of livelihood for doing so, regardless of credentials, of college. In the software industry, and again with social media, and in 3d printing, we see how youngsters do move to the leaders of new industries–Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Linus Torvalds, to name but a few instances.

We do not see this happening, however, in research, or in instruction. There, one’s access is delayed for decades. Many of the greatest achievements in mathematics have been made by youngsters. Yet STEM education would force them all through a curriculum so they emerge on the other side of age 25 without even a credible chance at being hired to teach, or supported to do research. Compare that with the hunger for talent that pervades sports and the performing arts, where someone distinguished at 13 can be acclaimed professional and leader by age 18 or 20.  University research practice should be ashamed–the one area where a advancement of opportunities for young talent as imagined by Vannevar Bush might be the most readily carried forward has arranged things so that that talent is already past its prime by the time it emerges from decades of “training”–in useless areas of mathematics, dumbed down presentations of famous conclusions of settled science (which Feynman railed about, since he also took the time to review textbooks for high school science), and rank after rank of problems to be solved to demonstrate passing competence, as if science consisted of solving problems that had known solutions, for the purpose of being praised or shamed, rather than the pleasure of finding things out.

The challenge we face in creating a generation of youngsters able to lead industries, universities, and research at need is made all the greater by the introduction of the idea of “high technology.” This concept carries with it that a nation’s competitive advantage lies in working with the most difficult, complex systems of instrumentation, enabling the identification and characterization and control of phenomena only reached with such expensive and difficult to manage stuff. Rockets, supercomputers, level 3 biohazard labs, cyclotrons, atomic force microscopes–this all stuff of “high tech” but it is also actually more like “expensive science.” The idea being, the best competitive advantage over research in other countries is the fact that researchers in most countries will not have access to sophisticated equipment, giving economic advantages to those that do. It is a concept in the style of a race, but now it is an economic race, rather than a race to perform a deed first, so it is closer to economic warfare, or hegemony, than something to open up the wonders of science to a new generation of would be mechanics, electricians, and manipulators of animal genetic codes.

The problem of high tech is not that it exists, which is fine. The problem is that it has received such an emphasis that to have access to it is seen as critical to scientific careers and contributions. Without a sophisticated lab, there’s no expectation of science. Citizen scientists are largely wannabes picking at crumbs and failing to catch the nuances in statistical analyses published by important professional scientists working in well appointed labs. High tech creates a separation from resources for youngsters, who do not get their own lasers, except in the form of laser pointers, which some of them then abuse by pointing at pets and aircraft. The funding for science, by shifting to high tech venues, leaves out the environment envisioned by Vannevar Bush for creating among youngsters the inspiration and capability to contribute, with opportunities for the most talented to lead research, to teach. Not to get a lab at the age of 35, but to have leadership roles at the age of 16 or 18 when the creative energy is peaking and the world is a mystery to engage.  American research is a gray-brow sport, generally. No amount of patent licensing moxie can overcome the loss of a generation of youngsters turned gadgeteers and amateur experts, with a hope of better things that they, themselves, can participate in making.

As for science policy, we live in the remnants of Vannevar Bush’s vision, in the shadow of changes caused by the second world world. But we have done a reasonably good job with science funding and building up university research, and a reasonably lousy job developing the rest of what Bush argues is necessary to adapt what happened to and with science during that dark time, when a great democracy bent itself around a generation of youngsters working with people from universities, industry, and queer places, with leaders contesting it out in debates that mattered, with everything riding on them, ready to make resources available for stuff that can be accomplished. The great challenge now is to bring some attention to making space for a generation of youngsters to have the opportunity to play with, develop, and come to contribute and lead in areas of technological importance–not just in some distant future, but in the near future, with opportunities similar to what they see in music and sport, and not to be flippant at all, in gang and Shanzhai/pirate environments, where performance is acknowledged and there is room for advancement.

We can do much better. Where $50,000 hardly covers a single graduate student at a university to grind away 1/2 time for 9 months, it could fund 100 DIY 3d printers for “youngsters.” For the cost of 100 graduate students, one could have 10,000 youngsters, working all the time to become gadgeteers. And there are any number of other technology areas–whether it is low power FM or glass making or table top metal casting using microwave kilns or vertical gardening–in which very low expenditures by government or industry, rounding errors in quarterly profit reports, would put resources out into a broad public space for 1,000,000 youngsters to get involved in their own futures, and ours. We do not need school curriculum reform so much as curriculum disruption and service. Curriculum should follow creative activity, not force it. We do not need more research expenditures for university science so much as we need expenditures that enable youngsters to see a future that isn’t pre-set for them, that isn’t merely a demand that they accept the tyranny of popular opinion, proving they can accept and recite the explanations that those in power don’t mock. Those expenditures are not for advertising and counseling campaigns to recruit students to choose a dull career in credentialed science, to be realized after their best years for the spark of insight may be past them. That is, after they are 25.

The expenditures for youthful talent need to find the street, the amateurs, the non-institutionalized, unbounded desire to make and do. It’s there. It’s only a few hundred million dollars away. Very possible in the government’s $40b annual university research budget. 2% for youngsters, for the future, to fill out the vision of innovation through research, broad based teamwork drawing talent from everywhere, dialectic on great issues with people in command of substantial resources, and pooling their knowledge to realize their hope for better things using the observations that Vannevar Bush laid out for us.



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