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A Hard Sell

The Great Depression occasioned a battle over federal funding of science.
June 23, 2009

In the fall of 1933, with the United States in the depths of the Great Depression, Karl T. Compton, MIT’s president and chairman of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s recently created Science Advisory Board, proposed allocating $16 million of the Public Works Administration’s $3 billion budget to fund a “Recovery Program of Science.” Its purpose would be to boost depleted research budgets and provide jobs for the legion of unemployed scientists and engineers. The funds were denied because no legislative authority existed for funding research through the PWA.

A stimulating man: Karl T. Compton, 1935

Undaunted, Compton spent the following year crafting a more ambitious proposal that would not only provide short-term relief to struggling scientists but also establish a national program for scientific research. Today, with the government committing tens of billions of dollars from its $787 billion stimulus package to funding basic science, and tens of billions more to get advanced technologies to market (see “Chasing the Sun”), Compton’s ideas seem relatively modest. But his efforts marked the beginning of a profound shift in the relationship between science and government, and in making the case Compton braved opposition on multiple fronts.

First, he faced a public skeptical of the distress cries coming from the professional class of scientists and engineers who had been flying high in the boom years of the 1920s. In fact, many believed that technology was largely to blame for the unemployment ravaging the country as machine labor replaced manual labor in industry. The public’s indifference, if not its hostility, to science was echoed by cabinet members who failed to see much political or economic value in diverting resources to science.

Compton also had to deal with opposition from within his own camp. The older generation of scientific leaders, deeply committed to laissez-faire doctrines, feared that increasing the federal role in funding scientific research would result in greater federal interference with the scientific enterprise.

By the time Compton finally unveiled his proposal for a $75 million “Science Fund,” it was already clear that the plan would go nowhere. Frustrated by Washington politics, Compton made his case publicly in an article called “Science Still Holds a Great Promise,” published first in the New York Times and then, under a different title, in the January 1935 edition of Technology Review.

There are some striking anomalies in our national policy which suggest that an important prerequisite to sound and permanent economic recovery has thus far been neglected. I refer to the contributions to national welfare which may be expected of Science, if Science is really put to work.

It is well known that Science has created vast employment, yet it is not being called upon or encouraged now to create new employment when this is desperately needed! Perhaps this is because of a realization that time is necessary for the development of a scientific discovery into an operating industry, a time required for technical development and for “creating” the market. …

Perhaps this neglect is a result of the early depression hysteria which, looking for a scapegoat, sought to place on “technology” the blame for the crash, forgetting that overproduction arises from competition for profits and not from science, that under­consumption arises from a paucity rather than a plethora of desirable products of science, that the labor-saving devices that spring from science are inherently desirable if used properly, and, most important of all, that the overwhelming influence of science has been to create employment, business, wealth, health, and satisfaction. …

A colossal program of public works construction has been authorized, designed to give useful employment and at the same time to improve the “physical plant” of the country by bridges, dams, roads, public buildings and the like; yet no provision is made, in this program, for scientific or engineering research looking toward better public works in the future! … The picture of such huge expenditures of money and effort for construction, with not even a small provision aimed at technical progress, is heart-rending to the creative scientist, engineer, or industrialist, who has come by experience to realize and to take advantage of the permanent value of research.

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