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Keeping the Science Gears Turning

Federally supported science was not utterly new in the 1930s. The public had long valued and paid for agricultural research; military technology received funding during the Civil War and World War I; and since 1901 the government had maintained the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). But this support did not extend to broad-based, long-term, nondirected research, the kind professors perform at universities. State funds supported such efforts at leading state universities, but most funding for pure research came from private foundations. Corporations such as the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. funded applied research in their laboratories, figuring the work would lead to profitable new products.

When the Depression decimated these research funds, a group of leading scientists, headed by Karl T. Compton, then president of MIT, asked for a federal investment of $75 million over five years-at the time an enormous commitment-mostly for university research. The federal government rejected the request because the scientists were unwilling to specify how the money would be spent; instead, the government
asked WPA to contribute to science and engineering research by paying for the assistants and support personnel needed to work with academic scientists. In fact, the WPA put nine-tenths of its science budget into salaries for relatively untrained people before the agency shut down in 1943. By then federal dollars were flowing to science as part of the war effort, most notably through the Manhattan Project.

Although WPA support for science amounted to only 3 percent of the agency’s overall funding, the funds were 10 times greater than those for either the Art or Writers’ projects. And a few percent of a budget of some $14 billion over the lifetime of the WPA was enough to influence a great deal of research. The WPA Index of Research Projects through mid-1939 lists 60 efforts in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and astronomy, more than 300 in biomedical science, and hundreds more in other sciences and technology. Much of this research was of publishable quality: two-thirds of the projects in physical science, for instance, were reported in journals like the Physical Review, which is still preeminent.

Familiar names appear on some of these articles, including those of three outstanding researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who operated on the cutting edge of nuclear physics with the assistance of WPA financing for their staff. Glenn Seaborg bombarded atomic nuclei with subatomic particles to transform one kind of nucleus into another, work related to his Nobel prizewinning research. Luis Alvarez, who was to win the 1968 Nobel Prize in physics for his method of detecting elementary particles, explored how an atomic nucleus captures its surrounding electrons, a process that illuminates the theory of anti-matter. Ernest Lawrence won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention in 1932 of the cyclotron, the first truly powerful atomsmasher. In two WPA-supported projects, Lawrence used the device to make neutrons, which had been discovered in 1932, and tested their power to destroy tumors.

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