ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
Managing the Unmanageable
Spread the Word
A Bumpy Road
Giants of the Sea
Comments
Perspective
Briefings
On Politics
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Classifieds
Last Word
Back Issues

 

- By Maxine Singer

Answers From Outside the Box

Our country and the world will be better off if the military reaches out to gather even the off-the-wall ideas it could receive by asking scholars, scientists, and engineers to focus and cooperate on the current challenges.

“The methods and mechanisms of warfare have altered radically in recent times, and they will alter still further in the future. The country is singularly fitted, by reason of the ingenuity of its people, the knowledge and skill of its scientists, the flexibility of its industrial structure, to excel in the arts of peace, and to excel in the arts of war if that be necessary. The scientists and engineers of the country, in close collaboration with the armed services, can be of substantial aid in the task which lies before us.”

Vannevar Bush wrote these words in June 1940. They describe our national situation since September 11 as well as they did in the early days of World War II. And once again, the country's scientists and engineers can be of substantial aid.

President Roosevelt signed his name to Bush's words in the document authorizing the establishment of what was to become the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). By the end of World War II, the OSRD had enlisted and supported scientists, physicians, and engineers nationwide to apply their originality, special mind-sets, and skills to a new kind of warfare. Radar, the atomic bomb, the proximity fuse, and penicillin were among the novel contributions to the Allied victories by the OSRD.

Bush believed that the bureaucracy, secrecy, and habits of the military establishment walled it off from access to the most innovative scientific and technical ideas. It was a two-way street, blocked in both directions. The military could not, or would not, engage the most inventive and original minds from the private sector, and the private sector had no route to reach the military. Moreover, Bush believed that the lack of full communication and cooperation between the branches of the military itself further diminished their ability to respond to the war that he and the president knew would soon engage the nation.

Opening those streets for traffic was not easy. Bush schemed incessantly against the several sectors of the military establishment most resistant to cooperation with civilians and one another. He was determined to convince the military that he and the president envisioned a cooperative effort. He made it clear that the OSRD's job was to provide ideas and research. It had no intention of taking over the development of weaponry or the tactical and strategic responsibilities of the armed forces. Eventually, he succeeded in fostering joint efforts between the military scientists and engineers and those the OSRD mustered from the universities and industry.

President Bush and the American military know that we are once again faced with a new kind of warfare. The tragic turmoil that Vannevar Bush foresaw and hoped to avoid is already with us. In a commencement address at Harvard in June 1941, he stressed that “the power of an attack ‘rests very largely on surprise, and surprise in turn rests on ignorance'” (as quoted by G. Pascal Zachary in “Endless Frontier”). We now know the horrendous price of ignorance and have lost our chance at the head start that the earlier Bush obtained for the country in 1940. But it is not too late.

The scholars, scientists, and engineers who work in our great universities, industries, and research institutions can, as they have done before, bring deep understanding and original ideas to bear on our new challenges. They can contribute much more than just novel ways of using technology. Many are trained and experienced problem solvers whose approach to difficult problems is to step “out of the box” because that is where scientific and technical questions are most likely to yield. Others are scholars with profound knowledge of fundamentalism of all kinds or with comprehensive insight into nations that harbor terrorists. Our fight against international terrorism will require their attention and ideas if it is to succeed.

Professionals, including those in the military, regardless of how skilled and dedicated, tend to see new challenges in their customary frameworks. This is not a criticism, it is simply the way most of us function. With every good intention, the U.S. military will be hampered if it ignores the resources of knowledge and ideas outside the government. It recognized this long ago when it established the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). An enhanced DARPA, reaching out more widely than it has in the past, may now be desirable. However, a special organization, independent as was the OSRD, might be the most productive way to help the nation excel and prevail in the 21st century's arts of war.

Our country and the world will be better off if the military reaches out to gather even the off-the-wall ideas it could receive by asking scholars, scientists, and engineers to focus and cooperate on the current challenges. If we are to excel and prevail in our battle with international terrorism, Vannevar Bush's prescription that our country should enlist “the ingenuity of its people, the knowledge and skill of its scientists, the flexibility of its industrial structure” should be as compelling today to President Bush as it was more than 60 years ago.

 

Maxine Singer is president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the position held by Vannevar Bush from 1939 to 1955.
Reprinted from the Washington Post

Prism@asee.org