The Palmer Committee

Vannevar Bush, 1940s.

Linus Pauling’s experimental work for the government came to an end with the closure of the oxypolygelatin program. Despite that, his association with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) continued. In late 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt contacted Vannevar Bush, director of the OSRD, and requested a report on the future of science in the United States. In response, Bush organized his colleagues into committees and requested that they consider the problem of funding American science and, eventually, offer recommendations.

Pauling, along with dozens of others, was selected to serve as an adviser. A result of his experience with the Committee on Medical Research, oxypolygelatin, and the oxygen meter, Pauling was assigned to a medical advisory committee chaired by Walter W. Palmer, a professor of medicine at Columbia University.

Once the committees had been organized, Bush plied them with discussion topics, asking them to consider the implications of government support for the sciences. Pauling himself was an enthusiastic advocate of government-funded research. He believed that public dollars were the best way to promote scientific growth and allow scientists to make progress in fields that didn’t promise an immediate financial return.

Science leading up to World War II had been funded almost exclusively by universities and corporations, both vying for the prestige and monetary profit that would result from marketable discoveries. Because pure science couldn’t promise the same economic returns that commercial science could, funding for university labs was significantly lower, frequently leading researchers to abandon their professorships in favor of positions in the private sector. Pauling believed that the most efficient way to address this problem was through a governing body empowered with the ability to provide support according to a proposed project’s scientific merit. Funding would be provided with an eye toward the value of the research in relation to the general body of scientific knowledge rather than its potential commercial worth.

Ultimately, the Palmer Committee concluded that no existing federal agency would be able to assign grants without some degree of specialization bias creeping into its process. As a result, Palmer’s group advocated, for one, the creation of a new agency with specific focus on supporting scientists from different fields of medicine and governed by medical experts spanning multiple fields.

Bush was troubled by the committee’s assumption that a separate organization should be created to oversee and fund medical research. Bush’s career had been severely complicated by the lack of cooperation between Washington’s many bureaucracies, and he was loathe to support what he saw as a further bloating of the system. As a result, he took the best of the Palmer Committee’s ideas – the governing body of experienced researchers – and combined them with his own ideas and those of his other colleagues. In the summer of 1945, Bush delivered his treatise on post-war science, “Science: The Endless Frontier,” to Harry S. Truman, President Roosevelt’s successor. In it, Bush recommended the creation of a National Research Foundation (NRF) charged with providing monies to researchers, including medical researchers, according to scientific merit.

Presidential Medal for Merit. Awarded to Linus Pauling by President Harry S. Truman, February 2, 1948.

For nearly five years, politicians and lobbyists battled over the details of this so-called “National Research Foundation.” Funding, focus, and structure were all issues that kept the organization from taking shape. To further complicate matters, while Bush’s proposal was stymied by politicians, other national science organizations like the Atomic Energy Commission and National Institutes of Health became major contributors to the “big science” movement, thus reducing potential NRF jurisdiction.

After years of debate, a consensus was finally reached and on May 10, 1950 President Truman signed the National Science Foundation Act. This legislation created the National Science Foundation (NSF) which was directed by a 25-person National Science Board that included 24 part-time members and an executive officer as appointed by the President. For the first several years of its existence under the direction of the physicist Alan T. Waterman, the NSF was virtually destitute thanks to the expense of the Korean War. Nevertheless, the organization persevered and by the mid-1950s was equipped with a $100 million budget.

After his work with the Palmer committee, Pauling quietly left the OSRD and returned to his personal research agenda at Caltech. His contributions and departure did not go unnoticed by OSRD officials, however, and he was officially recognized by the War Manpower Commission, the NDRC and OSRD, the War Department, and the United States Navy Bureau of Ordnance. In 1948 he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit for his wartime contributions. The war chapter of his career concluded, Pauling continued on with his biochemical research and began a campaign against nuclear weapons, ultimately earning two Nobel prizes and becoming one of the most influential chemists and peace activists of the 20th century.