Federal Support for University Research: Forty Years After the National Defense Education Act (Conference: October 1, 1998)
I. The Historical Importance of the NDEA and the Establishment of NASA
In October 1957 the successful launch of Sputnik set the stage for lawmakers returning to Washington. Not only was it the world’s first satellite, but it was also the first ICBM. In dramatic fashion, the Soviets appeared to be ahead in the space race and the Cold War. The Naval Research Laboratory’s failed attempt two months later to launch a Vanguard rocket carrying an American satellite reinforced the resolve for legislation that would increase the prowess of American science and technology.
At the federal level, a consensus formed. The nation needed a more concerted effort to nurture the sciences and develop new technologies. "Congress has repeatedly turned down educational assistance," remarked Congresswoman Martha W. Griffith at a meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. "Now, for the first time, it will undoubtedly be one of the first matters on the agenda."
Two major legislative actions by Congress followed, the National Defense Education Act signed by President Eisenhower on September 2, 1958, and the establishment of NASA a month later on Oct. 1st. These two federal acts provided gateway to the modern era of federal support for basic research, and for invigorating the nation’s R&D investment.
The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was the most important federal bill related to higher education since the 1862 Morrill Act. Glenn Seaborg, James Conant and Eliot Richardson helped to craft the bill which was carried in Congress by Democrats Carl Elliot and Senator Lister Hill, and which gained the votes of twenty-four Republicans who had previously voted against similar legislation.
The general provisions of the act articulated the Cold War motives of Congress: "an educational emergency exists and requires action by the federal government. Assistance will come from Washington to help develop as rapidly as possible those skills essential to the national security." Federal expenditures for education more than doubled. For higher education, this included funding for federal student loan programs, graduate fellowships in the sciences and engineering, institutional aid for teacher education, funding for capital construction, and a surge of funds for curriculum development in the sciences, math, and foreign languages.
The NDEA provided funding for both K-12 and higher education. But its greatest impact was within the realm of an evolving and expanding network of research universities. It was a watershed act that led to other major changes in federal higher education policy.
As a direct outgrowth of this crisis in the winter of 1957-1958, the administration worked with congressional leaders to draft legislation creating a permanent federal agency dedicated to exploring space. Numerous proposals surfaced during that winter, the least acceptable, at least from Eisenhower's perspective, was a plan to create a Department of Science and Technology, sponsored by Representative John M. McClellan, Democrat-Arkansas, and Senator Hubert Humphery, Democrat-Minnesota. But Eisenhower resisted other less ambitious plans as well.
A turning point came on February 4th 1958 when he finally capitulated and asked his science advisor, James R. Killian, to convene the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to come up with a plan for a new space flight organization. Quietly considering the creation of a new civil space agency for several months, PSAC worked with staff members from Congress and quickly came forward with a proposal that placed all non-military efforts relative to space exploration under a strengthened and renamed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
Established in 1915 to foster aviation progress in the United States, the NACA had long been a small, loosely-organized, and elitist organization known for both its technological competence and its apolitical culture. It had also been moving into space-related areas of research and engineering during the 1950s, through the work of a Space Task Group under the leadership of Robert L. Gilruth. While totally a civilian agency, the NACA also enjoyed a close working relationship with the military services, helping to solve research problems associated with aeronautics and also finding application for them in the civilian sector. Its civilian character; its recognized excellence in technical activities; and its quiet, research-focused image all made it an attractive choice. It could fill the requirements of the constrained job Eisenhower envisioned without exacerbating Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower accepted the PSAC's recommendations and sponsored legislation to expand the NACA into an agency charged with the broad mission to "plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities"; to involve the nation's scientific community in these activities; and to widely disseminate information about these activities. An administrator appointed by the president was to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During the summer of 1958 Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act and the president signed it into law on July 29th 1958. This ended the debate over the type of organization to be created and other plans died a quiet death. The new organization started functioning on 1 October 1958, less than a year after the launch of Sputnik 1. Its first task was the development of a human space exploration program.
The Federal Role in Funding R&D
While new funds for expanding the science curriculum of schools and colleges and for graduate fellowships and the like flowed through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the Office of Education, other agencies received large infusions of funds specifically aimed toward expanding the nation’s R&D effort. In the name of defense, congressional allocations provided a flood of taxpayer money to the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies to fund basic and applied research.
The immediate post-Sputnik, NDEA years mark a major transition in the nation’s investment in Research and Development. The majority of new federal funds for R&D continued to go to programmatic research and development for defense purposes and the space program, feeding America’s growing and massive defense and aeronautics industries. Yet a new surge of funds now went to basic research and infrastructure costs at the nation’s research universities. For example:
Since Sputnik, an estimated 75 percent of all engineers and scientists who entered the field of scientific research have gone into federally subsidized undertakings in both public and private sectors. Fortune magazine stated the obvious in 1976: "science and technology have become the wards of the federal government."
II. The Present and Future Pattern of Support for R&D
The Sputnik legacy remains, but the world has changed. The private sector has significantly expanded its R&D investment. In a reversal of roles, it is now the private sector that funds approximately 70% of all R&D activity in the US. And it is exactly those industries that have benefited most from government funded basic research -- high tech businesses focused on, for example, computers and communications -- that are now investing more of their own dollars in research.
At the same time, however, the total US investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP is now nearly a quarter less than the peak in the mid-1960s. While other industrial nations are increasing investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP, in the US it may decline.
America’s investment in basic research is also stagnant. Despite the increase in privately funded R&D, most of the investment is in applied areas. The vast majority of America’s basic research activity, including the training of the nation’s scientists and engineers, is still dependent on federal funding and carried out by the nation’s research universities.
Proposals are emerging to increase federal investment in basic research in the US. This may mark a shift in a nearly eight year decline in federal R&D investment.
The conference "Federal Support for University Research" will provide a forum to discuss a number of key issues:
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