President Joe Biden has picked Eric Lander to be his White House science adviser. As a complement to this appointment, we have a letter that Biden wrote to Lander on January 15. In that letter, the now-46th president began by recalling a much earlier letter, written by the 32nd president.
As Biden said, “In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authored a letter to his science advisor, Dr. Vannevar Bush, posing the question of how science and technology could best be applied to benefit the nation’s health, economic prosperity, and national security in the decades that would follow the Second World War.”
That long-ago letter from FDR to Van Bush, his military science adviser, dated November 17, 1944, proved to be one of the most far-reaching documents in modern American history. Even as World War II raged, FDR, seeing the enormous contribution that American science and technology had made to the war effort—everything from penicillin to analog computers to the atomic bomb—called for a similar sci-tech contribution to post-war prosperity.
As FDR wrote 77 years ago, “The information, the techniques, and the research experience developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in the universities and in private industry, should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.”
Focusing on health, FDR noted that “annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war.” From our vantage point today, it’s poignant to realize that total of American deaths from Covid-19 have exceeded U.S. combat deaths from World War Two.
So the question that FDR posed to Bush can be seen as laying a positive template for subsequent national efforts at health advancement: “[W]ith particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?”
The answer, of course, was that there was plenty to be done. Bush’s formal response came in July 1945—three months, as it happened, after FDR’s death.
In a detailed tome, “Science—the Endless Frontier”, Bush outlined an energetic national agenda, not only for medical science, but for all of science. As a result, the National Science Foundation came into existence in 1950, institutionalizing the idea of federally funded “Big Science.”
Big Science has given us such health breakthroughs as the polio vaccine, effective treatments for AIDS, and, through President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, the vaccines for COVID-19. In addition, of course, Big Science gave us the transistor, the space program, and the internet—as part of a long list of real-world miracles.
So now, in his letter to Lander, Biden touched on several topics, including climate change and the challenge from China, and yet, mindful of Covid, he put health first on his list: “What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible—to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?”
Indeed, as he wrote to his science adviser—who has been elevated to cabinet rank, a first in the history of the position, which is formally known as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—Biden seemed to indicate that he looks forward to receiving his own version of “Endless Frontier”: “I look forward to receiving your recommendations—and to working with you, your team, and the broader scientific community to turn them into solutions that ease everyday burdens for the American people, spark new jobs and opportunities, and restore American leadership on the world stage.”
In response to Biden, Lander tweeted, “Answering them will take everyone— scientists, technologists, and the public—working together! #Scienceisback!”
To be sure, Republicans might be inclined to say that science never went anywhere under Donald Trump; moreover, when it comes to issues such as COVID-19 lockdowns, they have plenty of questions about the Democrats’ “trust the science” mantra. Furthermore, GOPers might add that the controversies over Covid policy are just an overture to the looming controversies over climate-change policy.
Yet in the meantime, it’s Biden’s bully pulpit, and he is communicating a real affinity for Big Science. Interestingly, just on January 20, The Washington Post reported that the main portrait in Biden’s new Oval Office is . . . Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Moreover, the article continued, “A painting of Benjamin Franklin is intended to represent Biden’s interest in following science. The painting is stationed near a moon rock set on a bookshelf that is intended to remind Americans of the ambition and accompaniments of earlier generations.”
Not everyone will like Biden’s new science-related initiatives—a number of them included in the flurry of executive orders that he issued on the 20th—and yet at the same time, we should recognize that Biden is shrewdly tapping into some of the main currents of American public life these past eight decades: Science and technology, and the products, medicines, and wonderments they create, are an endless frontier that Americans will always find both fascinating and enriching.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.
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