Science the endless frontier refers to profiting from winning the global race of inventing technologies and innovating products for offering better means of Getting jobs done by leveraging the endless flow of scientific knowledge. It got the attention due to Dr. Vannevar Bush’s report on how to leverage science and technology to drive the prosperity of America. Dr. Bush worked on it in response to President Franklin Roosevelt’s instruction.
Upon being impressed with the wartime role of science and technology advancement, in November 1944, President Roosevelt, in his letter, asked Dr. Bush to work out a strategy for profitable exploitation of wartime learning in a time of peace. He emphasized leveraging research management experience and R&D expertise gained by thousands of universities and private industry scientists. However, the objective of leveraging science in peacetime would be different.
The urgency is to improve national health, create new enterprises for new jobs, and improve American living standards. Instead of knowing science for the sake of curiosity, the letter clearly stated exploiting science for job creation, economic prosperity, and decent work. He emphasized the war-winning vision, boldness, and drive for pushing the frontier of science and transferring newly found knowledge into better products and processes. The letter underscored the urgency of winning this adventure to create fuller and more fruitful employment and more fruitful life.
Subsequently, the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), and many others were created to put the report into action. Consequentially, America’s race to harness the endless frontier of science for creating Wealth has led to global technology supremacy. This mission has created multiple technology clusters, including Route 128, around Boston, and Silicon Valley.
Offering Better Quality Products at Less Cost—by pushing the frontier of science
In response to President Roosevelt’s letter, in July 1945, Dr. Bush submitted his landmark report—Science the Endless Frontier. In his recommendations, he called for action for both advancing science and leveraging it to create economic benefits, jobs, and new enterprises.
Advancing the frontier of science is a challenge. However, the progress in pushing the frontier further does not naturally create wealth and drive prosperity. Hence, Dr. Bush, in his report, mentioned that making the same things that America made before and selling them at the same or higher prices would not meet peacetime urgency. He underscored that America would not advance in international trade unless the people succeeded in offering new, more attractive, and cheaper products. He went further, raising vital questions—(i) where would these new products come from, and (ii) how would America find ways to make better products at lower cost?
Conventional answers to these two vital questions given by Economists and development professionals have been pursuing import substitutions, manipulating tax, offering subsidies, discovering and occupying natural resources, investing in infrastructure, cutting costs by lowering incentives for workers, negotiating trading treaties, inviting immigrants to work for less salary, and so on. However, Dr. Bush referred to the potential of science for substituting material, energy, and labor with knowledge and ideas and improving quality simultaneously. Once the path of making products better and cheaper by adding knowledge and ideas is opened, profit-making competition creates high-paying and decent jobs. Hence, he referred to the urgency of a stream of new scientific knowledge to intensify profit-making competition, drive prosperity, create jobs, and advance America’s living standards. By establishing this vital linkage, Dr. Bush presented his vision of science, the Endless Frontier for driving America’s prosperity.
Lesson from History and Contemporary Development Thinking
Often, there has been a belief that a natural correlation between science and economic benefits exists. Unfortunately, it does not. For example, Muslims in the Middle Ages made significant advancements in science. They pursued scientific discoveries due to religious instruction given by the Holy Quran. Consequentially, their stockpiling of scientific knowledge did not create high-paying jobs and drive economic prosperity. In those days, for the salary, scientists used to rely on the grants given by the Government. And the public could not enjoy a better quality of living due to discoveries made by their scientists. However, UK-led Europe showed how to drive economic prosperity by leveraging science. They succeeded in intensifying competition by pouring private capital to profit from improving products and lowering costs by leveraging science.
Not only Muslims in the Middle Ages failed to transfer their success of pushing the frontier of science into prosperity. Even in modern times, we have plenty of examples. For example, in less developed countries, there has been a very weak coupling between acquiring scientific competence and driving prosperity. Hence, despite the rising scientific publications, countries like India have been failing to create high-income jobs and drive economic growth.
Wining Global Innovation Race—essential for creating jobs from scientific discovers
The reality of failing to transfer the investment in science into economic growth and jobs is not limited to less developed countries. Even Europe and America have suffered from failing to transfer their scientific discoveries into prosperity. For example, in 2023, three American Scientists got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing quantum dots. However, American firms are not the winners in driving the economic benefits from this discovery. Instead, South Korean and Japanese companies like Samsung, LG, and Sony have been leveraging it by advancing Television displays and LED light bulbs. As a result, Japan and South Korea, instead of the USA, have succeeded in creating high-income jobs by leveraging this Nobel Prize-winning science.
Ironically, TV displays and LED were invented by American and European scientists. But their firms lost the edge to the Japanese and South Koreans. Hence, winning the global innovation race highly matters to transfer the success of pushing the scientific frontier into economic prosperity. Due to such reality, Japan’s success in leveraging its Nobel prize-winning success in Physics and Chemistry is relatively high. In retrospect, Japan’s science mission has been to win the global innovation race in critical products and industries. For example, Japan’s winning of Nobel Prizes in LED, Lithium-ion battery, and Transistor have been due to the urgency of winning the global innovation race in related products.
Losing Inventions by America—making a success of endless frontier transient
There is no doubt that Dr. Bush’s report led to America’s success in advancing science and leveraging it in inventing technologies and innovating products. The success of Silicon Valley and many other technology clusters and individual firms have root to basic science. Besides, America’s victory in coupling weapon sharpening agenda also played a vital role in attaining superiority in critical technologies like satellites, mobile phones, semiconductors, computers, the Internet, and many more.
The coupling of defense agenda is at the core of America’s success as inventors and innovators found the military as the customers at the early stage of the technology life cycle. Hence, American companies became global leaders in inventing and profiting from early success. However, in many cases, they could not sustain it. It happened due to the loss of the worldwide race to improve them further and serve the civilian market. For this reason, innovation epicenters of many American inventions migrated to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Lately, it has started to migrate to China. Consequentially, America has become an importer of many of their inventions. For example, for high-end microchips, America entirely relies on Taiwan. Hence, America’s economic benefit from the endless frontier of science is limited.
Creating early success through scientific discoveries, inventions, and innovating for the defense market cannot fully leverage the investment. Besides, measuring success in publication and patent counting is even worse. Unfortunately, less developed countries have been increasing their science investment for this purpose. Concerning the given reality, such publication and patent-driven investment in less developed countries appear to be a waste of vital resources they have through labor and natural resource trade. Instead, the focus should be on winning the global race of incremental advancement and reinvention by leveraging science.
This article is part of a book, Engineering Economics and Management–Modern Day Perspective.