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Bring Back Vannevar Bush

Business and government should once again work together to advance science and medicine.
vannevar bush at desk

As only a fading few still remember first-hand, during World War II, everyone was “all in.” As Uncle Sam roused himself after Pearl Harbor, the Depression was shaken off, and a new era of industrial cornucopia begun.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in his 1942 Budget Message to Congress: “Powerful enemies must be out-fought and out-produced…We must out-produce them overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theatre of the world war.”

For its part, the country, all of it, responded positively. In the words of one African-American war-production worker, recalling the seven-day workweeks on the homefront,

You felt that you had to get this done as soon as you can and as fast as you can. I felt that we needed airplanes. And we needed trucks. And we needed all types of parts. Carburetors, and all types of parts.

U.S. war production exceeded FDR’s goals, astounded the world—and buried our enemies. Of course, it wasn’t just quantity, it was also quality. Scientists and technologists were producing new high-tech weapons: radars and sonars, the proximity fuse for artillery shells, jet aircraft, and, of course, the A-bomb. Yes, when it comes to getting big things done, there’s much to be said for mass-mobilization. Plenty of people work hard for a buck—but plenty more work hard for God and Country.

Yet even as the war raged overseas, the 32nd President sought to apply the same pro-science vision to post-war domestic concerns. In particular, he saw that the machinery of military progress could be converted to domestic progress. In a November 17, 1944 letter to Vannevar Bush, a corporate executive who enlisted in the war effort as director of the Pentagon’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, FDR outlined a bold plan for the post-war U.S.:

The information, the techniques, and the research experience developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in the universities and in private industry, should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.

That is, the same scientific know-how that gave us wonder-weapons could now bring wonderful tools of peace. Among Roosevelt’s points was the possibility of using the new machinery—that is, perpetual R&D—in the service of a America’s health and medical advancement. He asked specifically,

With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?

In other words, FDR continued, science ought to mobilize, yet again, to win the war against disease—which, after all, counts more victims even than mass warfare:

The fact that the annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war should make us conscious of the duty we owe future generations.

That was the vision that shaped post-war America. War industries were demobilized and sold off to the private sector, even as government-funded science programs sponsored further advances in electronics, computers, aviation, and rocketry.

Indeed, the same Vannevar Bush, while still on the government payroll, conceptualized what would become the Internet in a July 1945 essay, “As We May Think,” and a decade-and-a-half later, the Pentagon created ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet.  We might also note that five decades later, Google co-founder Sergei Brin attended graduate school in computer science at Stanford as a National Science Foundation research fellow. In other words, the federal government’s remarkable success with these internet investments has more than compensated for whole lot of Solyndras. That doesn’t make Solyndra good, but it means Uncle Sam isn’t as dumb as he is made out to be.

Yet as we all know, starting in the ‘70s, that positive Roosevelt-Bush Big Science vision started to falter. The federal government proved itself to be incompetent in many areas, leading some to declare that the solution was not to reform the government and learn some lessons—e.g., no more Vietnams, no more Model Cities—but, rather, to junk the state entirely. Meanwhile, the Greens, the NIMBYs, and the ZPGers concluded that humanity and technology were the problem, not the solution.

It was during this era of the ‘70s that the basic political orientation of Silicon Valley was formed. The new techsters of the Bay Area were technophilic, for sure, and not at all conservative, but they were also counter-cultural. If pressed to declare a political party, most would have called themselves Democrats, but in fact they were dismissive, even hostile, to Washington, DC.

The Valley built a mostly libertarian ethos that viewed itself as well outside of the old Roosevelt-Bush Big Science system, and so two divergent worldviews, East and West, developed.

For its part, Washington, having lost faith in a technologically improving future, became focused on zero-sum politics, oblivious to the possibility of transformative scientific breakthroughs. At the same time, 3,000 miles away, Silicon Valley was fully enamored of the positive-sum transformation, but was mostly clueless to the value of politics in mobilizing the largest possible collective action.

So now we see one result: Seventy years ago, FDR wanted to use science to help people live better and longer. Today, it’s Google, not the government, talking about extending life.

Back in 2009, Obama himself made a pitch for curing cancer. On February 24 of that year, he told a joint session of Congress that he would “launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time.” Obama’s mother and grandmother, one might note, died of cancer.

Unfortunately, not much has been heard of that presidential pledge since. Instead, as we all know, the Obama administration has been wrapped up in the enactment and implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—that is, in paperwork of its own making.

Getting everyone covered is indeed a laudable goal, but the politics of that goal have always been dicey, for the simple reason that 85 percent or so of Americans already have health insurance. And so when the average American looks at “Obamacare,” the polls show that they see change that they cannot believe in.

Indeed, three years after the ACA was passed, some big labor unions are loudly protesting the way that the law will affect their existing health insurance policies. As they wrote, the ACA, without modifications, will “shatter” existing benefits. Oops.

Meanwhile, from the West Coast:

“Google exec hints at ultimate recruitment perk for top engineers: Life extension.”

That’s not your everyday headline, even for Silicon Valley. But on July 17, that header appeared on the tech-oriented website ZDNet, with a byline from a well-known digital blogger, Tom Foremski.

High-tech companies, chasing after a relatively small pool of brainiac engineers, are already offering employees big salaries, generous stock options, and free gourmet food at the workplace. So why not offer longer life, too? As perks go, that’s pretty good, right? As Foremski explained, “There is no amount of salary, free food and beer, that could rival Google’s leadership in lifespan extension technologies.”

There’s no guarantee, of course, that this latest corporate blandishment will prove to be anything more than a mirage. Yet where there’s a will—and a high IQ—there’s probably a way. Indeed, skeptics and naysayers should be reminded of “hard” sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of prediction:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Google’s life-extension effort is being spearheaded by their Director of Engineering, famed futurist Ray Kurzweil, who has himself long been a champion of longevity; according to Wired magazine, he takes 180 to 210 vitamins and minerals a day.

Beyond the pills, Kurzweil’s longevity vision looks forward to “The Singularity.” That’s the moment, which he projects to be around 2045, when mortal humans can merge with immortal machines. Or, as they say in the Valley, fleshly “wetware” can be uploaded into software and hardware. If the algorithm of one’s brain can, in fact, be stored in infinitely durable 5-D nano-structured glass—call it “foreverware”—then the deed is done. And after that’s accomplished, it probably won’t be so hard to put the brain “algo” back into some new wetware form.

It all sounds amazing, of course, but folks in Silicon Valley—and smart people in general—have created wonders in the past, and more are sure to come. Looking ahead, and upward, are you ready for mining minerals on asteroids? Or for using the ice found on those Near Earth Objects to create water and sustain human life elsewhere in the solar system? If so, Planetary Resources is for you, boasting a team that includes X-Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis, film director James Cameron, Ross Perot Jr., and Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page.

In such an ambitious context, who could be surprised that life-extension is on the Silicon Valley agenda? What’s the point of building a cool space rocket if you don’t live to see it take off—and land somewhere?

Such Promethean dreams, to be sure, have their critics. Luddites, on the left and on the right, will no doubt find reasons to oppose all these forthcoming ventures.

But here’s a bet: Luddism won’t prevail. It’s simply not possible to stop the next quantum leaps, vertiginous as they might be. And it won’t just be Silicon Valley making them; the same technoprogressive impulse is fully loosed in tech-clusters all across Asia. And who knows—even Old Europe, the mother of modern science, might surprise us with its innovation.

So what should the rest of us do? That is, those of who are mere consumers, not producers, of tech wonders? Should we just sit and watch as a new kind of evolution—a new kind of “survival of the fittest”—emerges in our midst?

Fortunately, there’s a better way, based on the timeless principle of “If you can’t beat them, join them.” There’s no reason why moguls and their hirelings have to be leading the way on these breakthroughs—the whole country can join in, too.

In the end, Google and America still need each other. Google has the brains, the resources, and the vision to see new cures and new pathways to healthier and longer life. The rest of us have some brains and lots of resources, even if our political system lacks vision. Right now, in our national myopia about medical research and innovation, we are squelching the next round of medical innovation and the opportunities for longer and better lives. But that could change whenever we wanted it to. After all, we have a reliable tool if we want to use it: elections can change politics and regulations.

In the 1940s, we had a president, FDR, and a corporate guy, Van Bush, who together saw how to mobilize the country not only to win wars, but also to win scientific, economic, and medical struggles.

So maybe, as the 70th anniversary of FDR’s fateful letter to Bush approaches, that real-world magic could be conjured up yet again. If it were, we would all be winners.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.



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