Is It Time for a U.S. Department of Science?

Messy pluralism is actually what makes American research great.
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The Biden administration made history earlier this year by elevating the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to a cabinet-level post. There have long been science advisory bodies within the White House, and there are a number of executive agencies that deal with science, some of them cabinet-level. But this will be the first time in U.S. history that the president’s science advisor will be part of his cabinet.

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It is a welcome effort to restore the integrity of science, at a moment when science has been thrust onto the center-stage of public life — as something indispensable to political decision-making as well as a source of controversy and distrust. Some have urged the administration to go even further, calling for the creation of a new federal department of science. Such calls to centralize science have a long history, and have grown louder during the coronavirus pandemic, spurred by our government’s haphazard response.

But more centralization is not the way to restore the integrity of science. Centralization has its place, especially during national emergencies. Too much of it, however, is bad for science. As a rule, science flourishes in a decentralized research environment, which balances the need for public support, effective organization, and political accountability with scientific independence and institutional diversity. The Biden administration’s move is welcome. But there is risk in what it could lead to next: an American Ministry of Science. And there is an opportunity to create a needed alternative.

Order, Please?

As it currently stands, the federal science establishment consists of a variety of organizations, each with its own mission, culture, history, and structure. This arrangement may well seem bewildering, especially when it comes to formulating a coherent national agenda for science policy.

For example, some science agencies mainly fund or conduct research, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Others are also regulatory agencies, such as the EPA and the FDA. Some are accountable to the president, such as the Department of Energy (DOE), while others are independent, such as NASA. Some are cabinet-level, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and DOE, while others, such as NSF, are not. And some are relatively small bureaus housed within larger agencies: For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is under HHS, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is under the NIH, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is under the Department of the Interior.

Many congressional committees and subcommittees in both the House and Senate are charged with overseeing different scientific bureaus and agencies. These committees help set funding levels, with influence from the agencies themselves, White House budget proposals, and the Office of Management and Budget. As for the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) — the department whose director was just elevated to the cabinet level — this is an advisory body. Presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon were advised by the President’s Science Advisory Committee, created in response to Sputnik. After Nixon eliminated the committee, Congress created OSTP in 1976 as a replacement. It studies an array of issues relating to science and technology, makes recommendations, and provides advice to the president. But it does not oversee or control the budgets of any of these other science agencies.

A recent Scientific American article bemoans this “complex (and arguably bewildering) structure,” arguing that it hampered our government’s pandemic response and inhibits effective science policy generally. The article applauds the Biden administration’s elevation of OSTP. But the “next step,” it insists, “should be elevating OSTP into a new Department of Science and Technology … that would bring together bureaus and agencies with a scientific mission from across the government into a single Cabinet-level department, laser-focused on making U.S. scientific efforts more effective.”

What would a central department of science do? It would, as the piece explains, consolidate within itself and oversee all the science- and technology-related organizations in the federal government. This would include both research and regulatory agencies as well as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and even the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The new department would also “foster a department-wide culture of respect for scientific inquiry and honest, unfettered discussion.” Its aim would be to bring focus to national science policy, while providing a single point of authority for federal science — within the president’s cabinet.

Although the Biden administration’s move is novel, such efforts to centralize science are not. As the renowned historian of science A. Hunter Dupree once observed, “throughout American history the people who have been concerned with the relation of science to the national government have searched for some form of central scientific organisation.”

It is worth briefly examining such efforts in our nation’s past. What this history shows is that moves to centralize science throughout American history have never succeeded, and have left us instead with the highly pluralistic federal science establishment we know today. And this has been a good thing. The sprawling and multifaceted establishment that has emerged over the last two centuries can be inefficient, duplicative, and may well need reform — but it is also the most successful the world has ever known. Institutional diversity has been key to its success. In seeking a more prominent place for science in our national politics today, policymakers must be careful not to undermine this long tradition of scientific pluralism, which has helped to make the American research establishment the envy of the world.

A History of Failed Attempts

The desire in modern science for a central authority can be traced as far back as the beginning of modern science itself, to Francis Bacon’s story “New Atlantis,” where a single institution, Salomon’s House, is dedicated to the study of nature. In our country, it began perhaps with the Founders’ wish for a national university, and picked up steam in the nineteenth century.

The idea of a federal department of science, in particular, emerged in response to the government’s growing dependence on scientific research, from information on demographics and farming to surveys of the country’s lands and waterways. Multiple federal agencies — such as the Bureau of the Census, the Department of Agriculture, the Coast Survey (now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and the Geological Survey — arose to meet these needs. Many scientific reformers came to believe that a single agency was necessary to oversee and coordinate the work of this increasingly unwieldy structure.

By the 1880s, the National Academy of Sciences was calling for the creation of a central bureau of science. It would be a “branch of the executive Government devoted especially to the direction and control of all the purely scientific work of the Government.” The new agency would be a kind of Ministry of Science, overseeing all federal research and providing a single point of authority for science within government. The proposal was considered, though ultimately rejected, by the Allison Commission, a bipartisan joint committee of Congress charged in 1884 with examining the utility and efficiency of federal science research.

The late 1800s and the Progressive Era saw the emergence of yet another set of scientific agencies, including the Hygienic Laboratory (now NIH), the Forest Service, the Bureau of Mines, and the Public Health Service (now part of HHS). During World War I, the American astronomer George Ellery Hale succeeded in creating the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy that would

bring into co-operation existing governmental, educational, industrial, and other research organizations with the object of encouraging the investigation of natural phenomena, the increased use of scientific research in the development of American industries, the employment of scientific methods in strengthening the national defense, and such other applications of science as will promote the national security and welfare.

The NRC did not quite live up to Hale’s ambitions, having a fairly limited purview in the post-war years. But his vision of science in service of the national interest proved enormously influential. Up until World War I, the government’s interest in science had mostly been limited to applied research in fields like agriculture, statistics, engineering, and medicine. Hale, however, had made a persuasive case for the practical value of “pure science” for military and economic success — anticipating the arguments of the twentieth century’s most prominent federal science advocate, Vannevar Bush.

Bush was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to oversee the government’s research programs during World War II, including the development of radar and the bomb. Under Bush’s leadership, federal research received by far the biggest increase in funding the country had yet seen. And as the war came to a close, he wanted to preserve federal support for science. In a famous report, Science The Endless Frontier, he urged the creation of a National Research Foundation to fund scientific research to stimulate technological innovation. The NRF would be a brand-new executive agency, politically independent and staffed by scientists, that would oversee all federal research — a bureau of science, at last.

It took five years for Congress and the president to reach an agreement on the details. The result was the creation of the National Science Foundation, which incorporated many of Bush’s ideas. Yet his hope for a single federal bureau of science did not materialize. Between the end of the war and the start of the NSF in 1950, myriad other federal research agencies had emerged or expanded, from the NIH and the Atomic Energy Commission to the Office of Naval Research and the national laboratories. As a result, the NSF turned out to be a minor player in a large and heterogeneous research establishment. It was a far cry from the central science agency Bush originally envisioned.

This has been the pattern in the history of U.S. science policy. Many of the advocates who helped build the modern research establishment believed America needed a central scientific authority to compete on the world stage. Yet, instead of a single department, their efforts helped produce our vast array of science agencies.

Countervailing Forces

Why did past efforts at centralizing science fail? One reason is that the federal government usually only takes a serious interest in science when there is a pressing problem — often a crisis, such as war or pestilence.

Accordingly, most of the resulting agencies wind up focused on those problems or related domains of research — agriculture, energy, the environment, medicine, or aeronautics — rather than science as a whole. The NSF is an exception in this regard, since its mission is to fund scientific research of all kinds, including research with no obvious or immediate application. But even the NSF had to take its place among the various other federal science agencies, rather than replacing or consolidating them as an overarching Ministry of Science.

Another reason these centralizing efforts failed is that science has always had an ambivalent relationship with political power. Historically, the reformers who sought to place science in government’s service have tended to be wary of political interference. So they put mechanisms in place to preserve the independence of scientific agencies, seeking to keep them politically neutral, or to separate them from the government entirely.

For instance, the NRC was created to serve the needs of government, and was made permanent through an executive order by President Wilson in 1918. But it was (and remains) an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a non-governmental body, created by congressional charter in 1863. Like the National Academy, the NRC’s independent status was by design. While seeking to press science into service for the public weal, Hale nevertheless wished to preserve science’s independence — a wish shared by many of his fellow scientists at the time.

A similar concern was at play back in the 1880s. Although driven by a desire to centralize, advocates of the Department of Science nevertheless believed that the planning for such an organization must be led by the “experts and specialists who are themselves engaged in” research — which is to say, “specialists who have a genius for research” rather than political actors. Accordingly, they believed the bureau “should be left free to prosecute such research in all its detail without dictation from superior authority.”

Vannevar Bush, too, struck a delicate balance between scientific independence and political support, despite seeking a closer alignment between science and government than ever before.

Although Bush proposed a central agency to oversee all government research, he wanted this research to be conducted outside government, particularly in universities and other “centers of basic research.” His vision was of government support rather than government control of scientific research. This is why he also wanted the agency to be staffed entirely by scientifically-minded people, rather than political appointees. He even suggested that the agency’s director be designated not by the president but by an independent board of scientists. This proved a sticking point in Congress’s negotiations with President Truman. (After a presidential veto, the proposal was dropped from the final bill.)

Together, these two countervailing forces — the government’s crisis-driven interest in the practical uses of science, and the scientific community’s wariness of political interference, even while seeking government patronage — helped shape the large and pluralistic research establishment familiar to us today. Left unchecked, however, each of these forces has the potential to undermine the integrity of science.

The Centrifuge

The most obvious danger of aligning science too closely with political objectives is that science risks becoming tied to the partisan goals of the governing majority. Presidential administrations, in particular, exert influence over the federal science establishment through political appointments, agenda-setting, and political pressure. As a result, national priorities for science policy can seesaw from one administration to the next — as we have seen most recently with the transition from Trump to Biden. One benefit of having a research establishment that is fractured into a dizzying array of agencies, advisory bodies, universities, governmental and nongovernmental laboratories, and foundations — rather than consolidated into a single agency — is that it makes it harder for any one faction to coopt science completely.

Another danger is that scientific research can get yoked to the utilitarian needs of government, thereby eroding support for long-term investment in exploratory research. Many key scientific discoveries — including many of those that fueled technological innovation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Einsteinian and quantum physics to molecular biology and genomics — flow from “basic research” that isn’t constrained by the need for technological use. Though often enormously useful in unforeseen ways, these discoveries are generally not the kind that can be ordered up on demand, according to the needs of the moment. A pluralistic research establishment fits the pluralistic nature of the research enterprise itself, which requires vibrant communities in basic and applied sciences as well as in engineering and commercial development.

Political objectives are not always bad for science. For instance, the partnership between government and science that emerged after World War II was closely linked to the country’s Cold War priorities, such as nuclear research and the space race. And this was, by all accounts, a period of astonishing progress in science and technology. For instance, the space program was, essentially, an applied research and engineering program driven by Cold War dynamics. But it also supported and stimulated scientific research of all kinds, and inspired a generation of young researchers to pursue careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Yet this post-war compact between government and science came at a price. Indeed, the era of Big Science and Apollo was also the era of the military–industrial complex, atomic power, and the ensuing backlash against technocracy, in the form of the environmental movement, antiwar protests, and the New Left. What provoked such popular anxieties about the new scientific elite was the perception, and reality, that science had become deeply intertwined with the government’s technological, economic, and military goals. For those who wanted public resources focused on improving social and environmental conditions here at home, the race to the Moon was not a source of inspiration and national pride, but rather a “moondoggle.”

But scientific independence carries its own risks. For instance, if science remains too independent of government priorities, it will lose the political support it needs, as reformers such as Hale and Bush well knew. Moreover, the attempt to preserve scientific independence can be seen — and can sometimes really be — cover for exempting science from political accountability. This can alienate the public, making it difficult to shore up political support for research projects that lack obvious application to the lives of those ultimately footing the bill. Historically, proponents of scientific independence like Bush have often underestimated the public’s (quite understandable) reluctance to subsidize expensive research aimed at knowledge for its own sake on the promise that it may one day generate useful technologies.

History suggests that to preserve the integrity of science, the centrifugal force of scientific independence must be counterbalanced by the centripetal force of social and political need, and vice versa. Science, in other words, must retain enough independence to preserve its own integrity, while demonstrating its relevance and responsiveness to public needs.

Congress’s Moment

Today’s scientific reformers rightly wish to restore science to a place of esteem in our national politics. But such efforts must be leavened by a healthy realism about the dangers of aligning science too closely with government priorities.

Placing science policy squarely within the highly political realm of the president’s cabinet, for instance, is welcome and maybe even necessary. But it does not resolve the enduring tension between scientific inquiry and political power. Nor does it make it any less likely that science may get exploited for partisan ends, or that the public will continue to be wary of the fusion of scientific and political authority. This is no argument for insulating science from political accountability, but rather a recognition that the line between political accountability and control can sometimes be quite fine.

Yet political accountability is not the same as presidential control. For much of the history of federal science policy, the tension between scientific independence and political accountability has played out in terms of the power dynamics of the White House and the more or less politically independent agencies of the executive branch — the NSF, the EPA, the NIH, the Department of Defense, and so forth. Conspicuous by its absence for much of this history — including our current debates about science’s place in government — is any serious consideration of Congress’s role. Yet Congress is required by the Constitution to oversee the executive branch, meaning also its scientific agencies. And as the “people’s branch,” it is also well-positioned to inject democratic accountability into federal research priorities.

Beginning in the 1960s, Congress moved to reassert its authority in science and technology policy, leading to the eventual creation of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. The OTA was a congressional agency that operated until 1995, providing expert advice to members and their staffs who had jurisdiction over technical policy areas, from basic science to defense research. It is no coincidence that such legislative reform efforts came on the heels of the 1960s backlash against technocracy and the close alignment of scientific research with the political objectives of that era.

The OTA was designed to provide Congress with its own independent source of technical expertise, so that Congress would not have to rely on the expertise of those agencies it was called upon to oversee. These agencies were spending huge sums on military and civilian research programs of all kinds — many of them controversial — and Congress felt ill-equipped to evaluate them. Meanwhile, there was increasing public demand for more democratic accountability over the course and development of science and technology, given their impact on society. By increasing its role in federal R&D policy, Congress hoped to discharge its constitutional duties more effectively, representing the interests of the public by overseeing — and, where necessary, reining in — the executive branch’s ever-growing research establishment.

Today, we are experiencing our own popular backlash against science and technology, fueled by the perceived alliance of scientific expertise and political power. At the same time, scientific expertise has never been more urgently needed for the government to do its job well, as the pandemic has made plain.

To reestablish the integrity of science at this moment, what we need is not more centralization, but rather to preserve — or perhaps even increase — the institutional diversity of our federal research establishment, while opening up more channels for political accountability. Reasserting Congress’s role in science and technology would be an excellent start. The Biden administration’s elevation of OSTP has provided Congress with the perfect opportunity to act.

Crises Are Not the Standard

One of the most surprising moments in the history of federal science policy came at the end of the Second World War. During the war, Vannevar Bush had established and overseen the most powerful research agency in history, the Office of Scientific Research and Development. It had close ties to the president, control over vast monetary and administrative resources, and an impressive record of success. For this reason, Bush’s call for generous federal support of science after the war is sometimes depicted as a self-serving attempt to perpetuate the predominance of the new scientific elite he himself had helped to establish.

But had Bush really wanted to protect the political power of this scientific elite, he would have fought to preserve the particular agency he created, and his role directing it. Instead, after the war, he and his allies dismantled it. As Hunter Dupree notes,

This was one of the most unusual decisions in all of American political history…. For any group to possess such power and to display such skill in using it and then to declare as an article of faith that the whole system they had made to work could not possibly continue is by any standard remarkable.

In place of the government’s wartime research agency, Bush sought to create a civilian one, funded by government, but with scientific authority devolved to non-governmental institutions:

We must proceed with caution, in carrying over the methods which work in wartime to the very different conditions of peace. We must remove the rigid controls which we have had to impose, and recover freedom of inquiry and that healthy competitive scientific spirit so necessary for expansion of the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

National emergencies, such as a global war or a pandemic, call for a high degree of centralization, though its benefits even during such moments are sometimes exaggerated. But Bush was right: Crises should not provide the standard against which to measure federal policy during ordinary times. There are political and moral reasons for this. Indeed, the abolition of any real distinction between emergency and non-emergency governance has long been the strategy of authoritarians seeking to consolidate power. But the history of federal science policy suggests that it may be bad for science as well.

As we emerge from our own war against Covid-19, today’s scientific advocates are following their predecessors’ lead in seeking a prominent place for science in our government. Will they, too, recognize the danger of aligning science too closely with federal power, and the need to preserve that institutional pluralism that has made the American research establishment so successful? The future of federal science may well depend on it.

M. Anthony Mills, “Is It Time for a U.S. Department of Science?,” The New Atlantis, Number 65, Summer 2021, pp. 30–39.
Header image via U.S. Department of Energy

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