If I have to read another article about Vannevar Bush I'm going to throw up. That is what a graduate student of mine told me last fall as we looked forward to a class unit on post-World War II science policy. I can sympathize. I have been writing about Vannevar Bush and his legacy in American science and technology policy for almost 30 years.
Science, the Endless Frontier, Bush's famous 1945 report, continues to be revered in the science and technology policy community. For instance, in 2020, the 75th anniversary of the report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a symposium celebrating the anniversary; President Trump's science advisor used the report to frame his annual congressional testimony on federal research and development investments; and a bipartisan set of congressional representatives introduced major new legislation called the Endless Frontier Act, ostensibly carrying forward the Bush legacy.
If anti-nausea medication is still in order, perhaps one reason is that the themes that Endless Frontier discusses never seem to get resolved. The role of experts in a polity was explored in Plato's Republic, and the discussions have continued in an unbroken line to this day. In that sense, Bush's report can be viewed as simply a touchstone anchoring important debates about knowledge in policy, politics, and society. But in another and more important sense, Bush's report, and specifically the metaphors and language it introduced into science policy discussions, has served to profoundly shape thinking and action on the role of science, scientists, and other experts in broader society.
The United States is in the midst of a historically catastrophic response to COVID-19 that should raise questions about Bush's continuing influence on science policies. The central metaphor of the endless frontier draws on an influential, but severely dated and misleading conception of American history, which hides challenges and problems in the guise of idyllic imagery. It also supports a powerful argument about the separation of science from the rest of society, an arrangement that has benefitted the scientific community, but in some instances has also contributed to limiting its contributions to societal benefit. The pandemic has created a valuable opportunity for reconsidering the social responsibility of leading scientists and scientific institutions in the context of the Bush legacy.
Dissonance at the heart of science policy
The United States' response to Covid-19 has revealed the consequences of incompetency in the White House and in the failed leadership of federal agencies. The full scope and factors underlying this momentous policy failure will no doubt emerge in months and years to come. The chaos-ridden US approach to the pandemic has also revealed a fundamental dissonance at the heart of the nation's science policy: it is possible to achieve spectacular scientific successes alongside outright social failures that science was supposed to prevent.
Richard Horton, the editor of the medical journal The Lancet, has called this "one of the strangest paradoxes of the whole pandemic." Horton characterizes the dissonance: "No other country in the world has...