Though enormously visionary, the scientists and political leaders who set the United States on its post-World War II research and development course could never have foreseen the extraordinary results. The computer was in its infancy in 1945 and seemed more a research tool than a revolutionary device that would profoundly affect industry, commerce, the financial world, government, science, education, communications, entertainment, and society as a whole. Accurate weather forecasting covered about a day in 1945; reliable 3-and 6-day forecasts, and the 90-day outlooks now relied on by farmers and utility companies, came only with years of research and the advent of supercomputers. Microelectronics, with all its implications for space exploration and utilization, national security, consumer electronics, medicine, and domestic and international communications, did not exist—nor did the equally revolutionary laser. Materials science, given a boost by the war, had yet to benefit from the studies that would yield the new metal alloys, high-strength steels, composite materials, silicon chips, glassy metals, optical fibers, and polymers so vital and so valued in 1995.

Astronomy meant mostly optical telescopes at war's end, and astronomers could only dream of the striking images now provided daily by the Hubble Space Telescope; the great advances provided by radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray astronomy would come only with time. Though an early cosmological vision of the universe's birth existed, it had yet to win its popular name, "The Big Bang," or to gain the theoretical underpinnings and experimental backing that now make it the standard model for the cosmos's origin. The Earth's crust was accepted as a solid shell, not the giant, separate blocks of rock portrayed by the theory of plate tectonics, which came together in the 1950s and 1960s and provided earth scientists with a general framework to explain the cause of most giant earthquakes, why volcanoes exist where they do, the birth of new oceans, and the timeless drifting of the continents around the globe. Few paid attention to or realized the economic, health, and social implications of a deteriorating environment, the loss of biodiversity, or the potential for adverse climate change—vital world issues that researchers would identify, describe, and bring to public attention.

The personal computer first appeared in the 1970s; the explosive growth of the Internet is a 1990s phenomenon. Electronic mail was until very recently the tool of a narrow slice of the scientific and technical community. Now, our national security depends heavily on the use of computers, networks, and telecommunications to assess, understand, and respond to potential threats. Computer graphics provides the "vision" to design new materials and buildings, and to model, for example, the lethal process of an AIDS (HIV) virus entering a cell and coopting its functions. There is virtually no industry that is not being transformed by the information revolution. And yet, the information revolution is still young and hardly over.

The remarkable advances enabled by science and technology during the past 50 years will surely be extended in the next 50. We can see some of the outlines. Information technology, for example, is already transforming the operations of many of our basic institutions, offering new ways to educate our children and contributing new approaches and tools for research in science and technology. Less obvious is how a quickly widening range of challenges facing our nation and the world will be addressed. If history, is a guide, the work now under way in universities and in federal and industrial laboratories will play a vital role.

The health challenges to the nation are apparent. The population is aging, and with that the problems of heart disease, cancer, and degenerative illnesses such as Alheimer's disease appear in sharp relief. These illnesses require fundamental understanding not only of the underlying biology but also of effective prevention strategies to delay or block their onset. The problem of ''emergent diseases" has gained full force in this decade, from the resurgence of tuberculosis to the appearance of "jet-age" scourges, such as AIDS and Ebola virus. We can rightly take comfort in the past victories over polio and smallpox and other infectious diseases. We should not forget, however, that the polio vaccine built on a century of microbiology; that biotechnology is only now becoming central to drug discovery, and that the biology underlying many of today's dread diseases is still almost wholly unknown. Further, science and technology are essential to building on the effective campaigns to reduce infant mortality, smoking, and deaths and injuries from drunk driving.

Perhaps less obvious but just as promising is the future potential for science and technology to address diverse national needs in transportation, public infrastructure, agriculture, and the environment. New materials, propulsion systems, and imaginative use of information technologies to create "smart" highways and cars will map onto currently obvious transportation needs—from reducing pollution to improving traffic flow and highway design. Research has contributed, albeit considerably below its potential, to development of the national systems by which we get our drinking water, remove our wastes, and obtain electrical power. As these systems become more complex and the pressures on public funds intensify, research that reduces costs and improves safety, such as non-destructive testing of bridges, tunnels, railroad tracks, and the like, will become even more urgent.

U.S. agriculture has been a triumph. Now the advent of biotechnology has created major new opportunities to increase the quality of foods, raise the efficiency of crop production, and develop new industrial uses for crops, including biodegradable plastics and pharmaceutical products. The current U.S. export lead in agriculture builds on a century of public and private investments in agricultural research and development. Future research will surely offer ways to sustain the productivity of U.S. agriculture while also making it more environmentally benign.

Finally, resource pressures will inexorably increase as we enter the next millennium—as populations, industrialization, and demand for energy and other resources increase. These pressures will increase debates about risks versus costs. Informing that debate will require a base of science and technology so that the problems are well understood, the impacts of alternative remediation strategies are analyzed, risks are adequately assessed, and effective prevention strategies are put into place.

A strong research and development capacity will be integral to dealing with future challenges, whether environmental problems, medical emergencies, or national security threats—or crises that we cannot yet predict. We also know that solutions come in unexpected ways from what is the world's premier research enterprise. With wise management, solutions to pressing problems—and innovations giving rise to now unimagined advances—will continue to come from many directions, for example, from the work of astronomers trying to understand the large-scale structure of the universe, or from mathematicians' studies on improving the calculations of properties of alloys, or from the efforts of social scientists to devise new ways for institutions to manage public resources such as fisheries, grazing grounds, and water supplies, or from biologists' investigations of the neural systems of invertebrates. New knowledge that enlarges our understanding will in time serve national needs. Science and technology, contributing a unique national capability for problem solving and creative discovery, will continue to be key in keeping the United States in its world leadership position—economically, militarily, and intellectually.

From: Looking to the Future

Cover of Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology
Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology.
National Academy of Sciences (US) Committee on Criteria for Federal Support of Research and Development.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1995.
Copyright © 1995, National Academy of Sciences.

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