World War II’s Lesson for After the Pandemic

The U.S. needs another innovation dream team.

Illustration of a light bulb with the coronavirus inside it
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.

On June 14, 1940, the day the German army invaded and occupied Paris, a small group of scientists marched to the White House with grave news for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. U.S. military technology, they said, was utterly unprepared to take on the Axis powers. They urged the president to create a new agency—a dream team of techies and scientists—to help win the war.

In response, Roosevelt assembled an agency that became known as the Office of Scientific Research and Development, or OSRD. Led by Vannevar Bush, the former dean of the MIT School of Engineering, the office ultimately employed more than 1,500 people and directed thousands of projects around the country. By the end of the war, it had spawned military inventions such as the proximity fuse, radar, and—after one of its programs spun off to become the Manhattan Project—the atomic bomb.

OSRD’s breakthroughs went far beyond missiles and bombs. It supported the first-ever mass production of penicillin in part by contracting with the chemical manufacturer Pfizer (yep, that one) to produce key antibiotic materials. The agency invested in malaria treatments and developed an early influenza vaccine. It invested in microwave communications and built the foundations for early computing. Not many people today have ever heard of OSRD—which was dissolved in 1947 and whose peacetime responsibilities were strewn across a range of government agencies—but its fingerprints are all over some of the most important breakthroughs of the 20th century.

And then, 80 years later, a new crisis struck.

COVID-19 posed another global challenge for which the United States was utterly unprepared. This time, too, the country’s initial response was staggered and delayed, but when the U.S. finally trained its scientific ingenuity toward a clear problem—the development of COVID-19 vaccines—Americans did extraordinary things with breathtaking speed. Once more, the U.S. government contracted with U.S. companies—hello again, Pfizer—to save American lives. And with the darkness of this global crisis fading (at least in the U.S.), some commentators predict a new era of optimism in science and technology.

Maybe. To understand how the United States can turn a crisis into a golden age of science and discovery, compare and contrast the country’s responses to World War II and COVID-19. Fortunately, a new paper, by Daniel Gross at Duke University and Bhaven Sampat at Columbia University, does just that. “‘Why are crises so fertile for innovation?’ is a question I’ve been asking throughout my research,” Gross told me. “And I think we’re starting to get a clearer idea.”

During the war, the Office of Scientific Research and Development did for defense research what a point guard does on a basketball court: controlling the pace of the game, setting up plays, and deciding which other player is best positioned to shoot a basket. The OSRD’s priorities came directly from military leaders’ needs. Then the agency farmed out contracts to universities (for research, mostly) and companies (for manufacturing production, mostly). Finally, it reported its progress directly to the White House. The agency nurtured new ideas throughout their entire life cycle—from the research lab to the factory to the battlefront.

Compared with OSRD, the U.S. strategy during COVID-19 was somewhere between diffused and nonexistent. Operation Warp Speed was probably the closest parallel, and it clearly accelerated the development of several vaccines. But beyond that, the U.S. government set few priorities for COVID-19 medicine and research. It never identified the key questions that researchers should be trying to answer. (For instance, what’s the best way for an indoor business, such as a restaurant, to stay open while protecting customers?) The government made little effort to organize or synthesize research. The main exception was the tragically inept CDC, whose guidance was often misleading, or months late.

Overall, our scientific response to COVID-19 was the opposite of OSRD’s response to World War II: not a centralized mobilization of applied research, but the decentralized emergence of basic research. That’s an important distinction. Since the pandemic began, more than 130,000 academic articles on the disease have been published online, and many different researchers have helped figure out how the coronavirus works. But the U.S. lacked an OSRD-like agency to determine which new technologies should be sent to the front lines to help health-care workers and sick patients stop an advancing enemy. “Outside of Operation Warp Speed,” Gross told me, “the federal government seems to have abdicated a lot of responsibility. Goals were never clearly articulated.”

Why was our response to COVID-19 so different from our response to World War II? One simple answer is: focus.

During the war, people within the U.S. government broadly agreed that the Nazis existed; that they posed a real threat; and that Americans could trust military leadership to articulate useful goals for beating the enemy. As a result, clear lines of communication developed among the military, OSRD, and the White House. So when the military said it needed better navigating technology, OSRD delivered huge breakthroughs in sonar and radar.

During the pandemic, however, no similar top-down consensus existed about the threat that the novel coronavirus posed. Clear lines of communication didn’t exist within the government. Worse yet, the Trump administration went out of its way to scramble the wires, lie about the pandemic, sow confusion throughout the public-health establishment, and publicly attest that the whole thing might just go away imminently. Instead, the most important breakthroughs came from the bottom up: Thousands of scientists clamored to understand the nature of the virus; hundreds of hospital networks gradually learned how to help severely ill patients; a ragtag team built the COVID Tracking Project; and a start-up Fast Grants program accelerated the funding of overlooked projects.

Ironically, the more diffuse nature of American innovation today might be the direct legacy of OSRD and its impresario, Vannevar Bush. After the war, Bush published an influential report, Science: The Endless Frontier, which encouraged the U.S. to expand its investment in basic science under the theory that all human progress is a tree that blossoms from the seeds of scientific research. Skeptical of industrial policy—that is, of the government actively working to advance its favorite technologies and industries—Bush’s thesis pushed for the government to expand basic-science funding and leave the rest to the private sector.

Bush’s vision is our 21st-century reality. Since the end of World War II, America’s inflation-adjusted spending on science and technology has increased by a factor of 50. Federal support for basic science has dramatically expanded, and major universities have shifted their focus from teaching to research. OSRD’s components are currently scattered among an alphabet soup of research agencies. The National Institutes of Health is the world leader in funding scientific research. But its strategy is very, well, Bushian. Unlike OSRD’s focused medical research, the NIH leaves priority-setting to many thousands of individual researchers. (“Disease advocates and Congress have at times questioned the wisdom of this,” Gross and Sampat write, especially in the context of health crises such as cancer and AIDS.)

Focus can be a double-edged sword. Having clear priorities is no good if those priorities are also terrible. A national mask ban would have been a very focused and very bad idea in 2020. A national declaration that COVID-19 is less dangerous than a typical influenza virus would have been a bold national policy—and a deadly one. Meanwhile, the triumph of mRNA technology was a beautiful story of how basic research can languish for 40 years before revealing its own worth. “It was precisely the nonfocused research on mRNA over the last few decades that allowed us to get these vaccines,” Sampat told me.

Yet OSRD’s work during World War II teaches important lessons about how to launch a new golden age of progress. Gross and Sampat told me that perhaps the most important takeaway from their paper might be the overlooked value of “applied research”—that forgotten middle child of technological progress, where nascent ideas begin to be deployed to solve real-world problems. OSRD was unique in its support for new technologies all the way through their life cycle. In the past few decades, funding for basic science has ballooned, but in many cases that research never reaches the next stage in the assembly line.

Consider, for example, the history of solar energy. In the 1950s, American researchers invented silicon solar cells. Through the 1980s, the U.S. spent more on research and development than any other country. But then it ceded that technological advantage, as my colleague Robinson Meyer has written, when Japan and other countries urged their firms to invest in solar technology, incorporate solar into an array of products, and bring down costs. The U.S., for its part, had no national plan to cross the valley of death from “neat new idea” to “mass-produced product.”

OSRD taught a lesson that was too soon forgotten: You get more from the seeds of new ideas if you’re willing to invest a bit in the planting stage. “NSF and NIH are really focused on supporting basic scientific investigation, but they don’t really fund, for example, early manufacturing capacity, or efforts to reduce drug costs,” Gross said. “That’s a market failure. There might be a productive role in government funding of clinical trials and manufacturing capacity.”

There is an interesting irony here. World War II’s highly focused innovation policy led to a postwar innovation system that is almost proudly unfocused.

I came away from my conversation with Gross and Sampat with a question I had never quite thought of before: What would an NIH for applied research look like? In other words, what if, in addition to using NIH to give grants to scientists who set their own priorities for basic research—stage one on the assembly line—Americans put the weight of government funding behind solving high-priority problems? We could do this by investing in the translation of basic research into practical technology, as Japan seems to have done, effectively, with solar power. A National Institute of Applied Science wouldn’t bring the U.S. all the way back to wartime industrial policy. But it might be the sort of institution that could kick-start a new golden age of innovation—by drawing on the last one.