Symposium at the National Academies: “The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science”

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Thank you, President McNutt, for the introduction.

To the National Academy of Sciences and to the Sloan Foundation and the Kavli Foundation: What a huge honor it is to be invited to reflect on the vision and legacy of Vannevar Bush, with this room full of my fellow science enthusiasts! (At MIT, with the greatest affection, we are still called “nerds.”)

With most other audiences, mentioning “The Endless Frontier” might sound like a Star Trek reference. But all of us here understand that this 1945 report was the founding document of the US scientific enterprise.

So today, I would like to explore what this model still has to offer us, and what steps I believe we must take now to ensure the future of US science and technology leadership – and thus the future of the nation.

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When “The Endless Frontier” was published, its plan for organizing and supporting scientific research was itself an innovation. It was untested in peacetime. And it made many academics uneasy. Some worried that federal funding was a short, dangerous step towards federal interference.

That’s important to remember, because we are so used to this model that it can seem inevitable, as if it represents the only option. This model was, however, exceptionally well suited to its time.

Dr. Bush submitted his report a few weeks after the German surrender…and just weeks before the fall of Japan. The US was positioned for global dominance – and primed for growth. Faith in institutions was running high – including faith in government and universities. The public was energized by an uncommon sense of unity and confidence, which made it possible to make big moves (as with the GI Bill, the year before). And there was concern about the post-war deficit of scientific talent.

With this backdrop, Dr. Bush launched his inspiring new “social contract”: a big bold plan for government to drive practical gains for society: first, by funding research, especially fundamental research, mainly through university labs, and second, by actively building the pool of US scientific talent.

In practice, Dr. Bush’s plan was modified. But nevertheless, his vision produced enormous value, for a long time – and still today.

For instance, his report helped the US become, for decades, the most educated nation in the world (although we have now slid to #6). It also helped build the nation’s unusual concentration of world-class universities (a distinction we still hold…for now). The research enterprise it helped create pushed the US to #1 in global innovation (another threatened honor). And all the federal investments it drove helped fuel the long, legendary post-war economic expansion, along with a steady rise in life expectancy, though that too has recently plateaued.    

The world has changed so much, it’s remarkable that “The Endless Frontier” remains relevant. But it does – because it is rooted in the very nature and power of education and scientific research.

However, it is becoming clear that the Bush model alone is no longer enough.

Dr. Bush sought to use science to generate practical human progress. Today, we seek that same broad outcome. But we face pressures he could not have envisioned. To cite just a few examples: Intense global economic competition, especially in certain high-stakes advanced technologies. The profound workforce disruptions of the digital economy. And the tremendous pressure to better understand, predict, mitigate and adapt to climate change.

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Vannevar Bush had a supremely orderly mind. But he envisioned a wild garden of scientific possibility, a garden whose growth was limited only by the boundless curiosity and talent of the American people (albeit with the discipline of peer review.)

We still need that wild garden! We still need the NSF to fund and promote curiosity-driven fundamental research…across the whole range of scientific inquiry!

But the current moment also requires something more, and different: It demands sustained cultivation of both talent and research, focused in key subject areas. And it requires deliberate, concentrated action to harvest the results. In effect, we need to “farm for innovation” as we would for a crop that our society needs to survive – because it does.

In my view, to achieve the kind of practical benefits Vannevar Bush was seeking, we have to build on the system he devised – and reach beyond it. I believe we need an aggressive competitiveness strategy to make rapid progress in:

  • Educating our human capital
  • Discovering and developing novel ideas in specific research domains, and
  • Accelerating innovation, by which I mean the transfer of ideas from lab to impact.

Let me offer a few observations on each of these three elements.

In terms of educating our human capital, we need to ensure an expanding pipeline of STEM-educated talent – with a special focus on responding to the disruptions of automation and machine learning.

The first step would feel familiar to Dr. Bush: We must find ways to provide a high-quality, accessible and affordable STEM education to as many people as possible.

This must begin with K-12, and extend to community college, all the way through advanced degrees. (And not only in those places already rich in education and opportunity – but everywhere in between.)

We in higher education must prepare a new generation of students, in essentially every field, to be “A.I. bilingual”, that is, as fluent in computing as they may be in urban planning, economics or biology – and also deeply schooled in the ethical principles and cultural values that must govern these powerful technologies.

And because, as I will describe in a moment, we have a pressing national interest in a short list of critical science and technology fields, it will also be extremely important to increase federal investment in scholarships,  fellowships and traineeships, and post-doctoral awards, specific to those key fields.

In parallel, we also need to reach those people who are in the workforce, or want to be, but who are not yet equipped to succeed in the digital economy.

Frankly, the lack of skilled human capital in technical fields represents a tragic loss of opportunity and upward mobility for millions of Americans. While the digital technology economy has been growing at about 10% per year, the legacy economy has grown about 2% per year. The good new jobs will require digital skills – and we need to educate our population so they can transform those jobs into careers. 

What’s more, the relative lack of people prepared for these jobs also creates a bottleneck to US economic growth, especially when young companies, founded here, feel forced to move some or all of their operations outside the US in search of talent.

To address this problem, we need to explore every alternative educational avenue we have, from apprenticeships, to online and blended options to micro-credentials. And we need industry and labor to step up and work together on “upskilling” current workers.

In all these efforts, we also need to do more to foster the success of talented young people from groups still painfully underrepresented in science – and that includes women! This is clearly the right thing to do, and also the smart thing, because it would tap a deep new pool of talent – people right now held back from achieving their full potential. The STEM fields have long been one of the most reliable escalators to the middle class. We need to keep that escalator moving!


At the time of “The Endless Frontier,” our nation was burdened with highly restrictive immigration laws, so the US was not yet what it has become in our lifetimes: a magnet for scientific talent from around the world.

Today, to meet the demand for a STEM-ready workforce, it is also absolutely critical that we maintain America’s ability to attract – and to retain – top talent from abroad. I have encountered broad support in DC for the idea that when a foreign student earns a STEM degree from a US institution, we should do the proper vetting and then, in effect, “staple a green card to their diploma.”

That is still a great idea!  But if we even want the opportunity to do that, America needs to stop sending a signal to the world that we no longer welcome newcomers!

I speak as a proud US citizen, and as an immigrant whose parents were uneducated refugees. But you do not need to share my background to share my distress at the hostility that radiates from current US immigration policy and rhetoric.

We feel this very deeply at MIT, a community of curious, creative human beings from all 50 states and 134 nations, working together on big ideas and on humanity’s great challenges. For our community, as for the nation, immigration is a kind of oxygen, each fresh wave reenergizing the body as a whole. 

We can all agree on the value of government action against defined threats. But closing America’s doors to new talent will have terrible long-term consequences for the nation’s scientific enterprise, and for the nation.

*          *

The second area that demands our attention is research. As I said earlier, we need to sustain the US commitment to basic, curiosity-driven research, both for the sake of new knowledge and, as Dr Bush understood, for its practical offshoots.

Without fundamental science, our best guess never gets any better – and 'innovation' is just tinkering around the edges.  With the advance of basic science, society advances, too.

But the demands of our own time also require, in addition, a new, more focused approach to discovering and developing novel ideas in a specific suite of critical technology fields.

The unsettling truth is that the US position of global technological leadership and competitiveness is under threat. In stark terms, the US has no significant presence in next-wave telecommunications, known as 5G – and we are not ready for what comes next. We remain barely ahead in machine learning and artificial intelligence and are behind in several subfields. Though we remain a leader in secure systems, we are arguably behind in quantum.

From China to Europe, global competitors are deliberately setting out to take our lead. And we are to a large extent letting it happen, because we have not pushed for a coordinated response, across universities, industry and government.

I expect we would all like to make sure that the US is not doomed to second place in winner-take-all fields, from AI and quantum computing to robotics and clean energy. If we aspire to invent the industries of the future, to maintain our national security and to be resilient in the face of climate change, we need highly visible, focused and sustained investments in such critical areas of research.

Making this happen will require rethinking business as usual, including breaking through current budget constraints. Starting from the “wild garden” of our current basic research system, we need to take a DARPA-like approach to fostering fundamental research in specific fields, in pursuit of advances in certain domains. 

One promising way to do this would be to create a new technology directorate at NSF.

However, because these technologies are “high stakes” not only in economic and national security terms, but in their broad societal consequences, the humanities and social sciences must be integral to the research agenda from the start. 

I close this point by emphasizing that this assignment, above all, must belong to the federal government. No other entity – no company, no foundation, no university, no billionaire – can summon the sustained funding, at scale, and the patience, and the commitment to put the long-term good of society ahead of short-term profitability, to make the progress we need.

*          *

Which brings me to the third and final focus: Accelerating innovation.

This point represents perhaps the most significant addition to Dr. Bush’s vision. In his model, federally supported university research produced new knowledge and trained new scientists. And then industry would develop and commercialize the fruits of that research, sometimes with risk capital.

That’s still a terrific model! – as far as it goes. But as we see often at a place like MIT, in many cases, it does not go far enough.

Venture capital has always been impatient. Today, the quick iterations, relatively low risk and rapid returns possible with successful digital businesses have only made that impatience worse. This sometimes pushes entrepreneurs to rush an idea to the venture stage prematurely, before it is strong enough to survive. And frankly, many good ideas are simply left hanging – not the next 24/7 urban convenience app, but big, serious ideas and inventions that could make a serious difference on serious global problems, but are too risky or complex to appeal to a traditional VC.

Because I have seen many such ideas abandoned by the side of the road, I feel very strongly that the nation’s new competitiveness strategy must include novel ways to “de-risk” advanced technologies, in order to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of technology from lab to the marketplace. 

We do have evidence that new approaches can make a difference: For instance, at MIT, we created an accelerator called The Engine, specifically to develop so-called “tough tech” start-ups. In just two years, The Engine has funded 19 companies, developing solutions from fusion energy to zero-emissions steel production to at-home diagnosis – in minutes, not days – of deadly mosquito-borne illnesses.

I believe there may be many other ways to de-risk technologies, if universities, governments, long-term impact investors, and companies are willing to work together.

And once technologies and products become market-ready, companies face another challenge that demands our attention. While the US innovation ecosystem remains one of the best in the world, it needs to be the best. We are not the fastest in moving innovations to market; that distinction currently belongs to China.

To help US companies compete, we need to find additional sources of U.S. capital for early ventures. Government, universities, industry and investors need to experiment with novel ways to help entrepreneurs get their ideas to market faster.

In short, I believe a suite of ideas for accelerating innovation would help our national investments in research bear more fruit, more often – and therefore make an essential difference to our nation’s future prosperity.

*          *          *

Educating our human capital; discovering and developing novel ideas in specific research domains; and accelerating innovation – combined in a visible, focused and sustained national competitiveness strategy. These, to me, must be our key priorities.  

We must not neglect the wild garden!  But we must also come together to plant specific seeds for the future.

You will all have your own perspectives and ideas.

What’s vital today is not that we agree perfectly on every detail, but that we agree, here and now, to develop the ideas together and drive the urgent action that our nation needs!

Dr. Bush asked, in effect, this inspiring question:

“What would the world look like if we could harness the wartime intensity of scientific research for peace, health and prosperity?”

We, on the other hand, are tending to ask more fearful questions:

  • “What would our society look like if the next wave of disruptive technology started in China, and they made all the rules for its deployment?”
  • And “How can we achieve scientific breakthroughs on a scale to combat and survive climate change?”

We do need to ask ourselves such questions.

But I hope we can borrow the steady, practical, aspirational spirit of Dr. Bush, and also ask ourselves:

“What would the world look like if we could unlock the scientific potential of the next generations, and deliberately harness the immense US research infrastructure and incomparable capacity for innovation to conquer both our fears – and tomorrow’s endless frontiers?”

That is the world I would like us to aspire to.

So I say: Let’s get started.