U.S. must expand opportunity for potential scientists or risk falling behind
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Dwight Eisenhower. Omar Bradley. George Patton. Douglas MacArthur. Vannevar Bush.

For those with even a basic understanding of World War II history, four of those five names should sound routinely familiar. Vannevar Bush may not enjoy the same notoriety as Patton or MacArthur, but his leadership of the nation’s scientific research proved critical to victory for the Allies. Atomic weapons, radar, guided missiles, the mass production of penicillin, and more all materialized under Bush’s leadership and were all essential to the wartime effort.

As amazing as it seems, his postwar contributions may have been even more influential. His vision for a national research effort, based on his wartime experience, would help to establish the U.S. as the most powerful engine of scientific research the world has ever seen. But, our failure to fully realize Bush’s vision means we are missing out on a vast unmet potential, a reality that threatens American leadership as the global leader in scientific innovation.

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As World War II neared its end, President Franklin Roosevelt penned an urgent request to Bush, who led the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. Quite presciently, Roosevelt tasked Bush with formulating postwar strategy for a national research effort that would build on the successes achieved during the war.

In response to Roosevelt’s request, Bush worked with scores of scientists and scholars to produce the seminal Science: The Endless Frontier. In addition to advocating for a federal agency focused on promoting research (which would become the National Science Foundation), Bush and his colleagues also posited three core principles that should define American research.

First, the federal government should fund basic research through the nation’s universities. Second, free inquiry among scholars is essential to the creation of new knowledge. Third, participation in science should be based on ability, not circumstance.

Albeit not perfectly, the U.S. has adhered to the first two principles and has made the U.S. the research juggernaut it is today. Since World War II, federal funding of university-led programs has dominated the national research landscape. Likewise, academic freedom free from political manipulation stands as a basic principle of scholarly pursuit in the U.S., even in face of sometimes visceral opposition.

Where we are failing is in our duty to make education and science accessible to anyone with the ambition, regardless of circumstance. While Bush focused specifically on eliminating financial means as a determinant of scholastic achievement, that sentiment today requires that gender, race and class hold no sway on academic opportunity. Expanding educational opportunities from pre-school to doctoral programs must be a national priority.

According to the Pell Institute, individuals from the highest income quartile are nearly five times as likely to earn a college degree by age 24 than those from the lowest income quartile. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that only four in ten African American students who enter college graduate. Slightly more than half of Hispanic students ever receive their degree.

These achievement gaps then transpose to enrollment in graduate programs, where our future innovators and discoverers are establishing their research careers. Since 1957, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has conducted an annual survey to track trends in doctoral education. According to the latest survey, less than 15 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in 2016 went to underrepresented minority students. The numbers are even worse in science and engineering fields where underrepresented minority students represent just 12 percent of all graduate students.

What difference does this make? Beyond the societal implications of inequality, by allowing arbitrary hurdles to academic success, we are missing out on innovations and breakthroughs that not only spur economic growth but save and improve countless lives.

Many of the solutions are straightforward. They just require the commitment to reorder priorities. Correcting the nationwide disinvestment in higher education over the last decade represents a critical first step to expanding access to college. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, during the Great Recession states across the nation slashed funding for higher education even as enrollment grew. After accounting for inflation, overall state funding of public two- and four-year colleges was nearly $9 billion less in 2017 compared to 2008. To date, only five states have returned funding to 2008 levels.

The vision for government-led research laid out by Vannevar Bush over 70 years ago still guides our efforts to realize discovery and achieve innovation. It now falls to us to continue this legacy for the generations to come.

Wilcox is chancellor at UC Riverside.