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The Origins of American Scientific Excellence


The United States has some of the best science and engineering in the world. Americans like to think this is because Americans are smart. But smart people exist everywhere.


Americas scientific and engineering dominance comes from the superiority of its higher education. For much of history, the United States has led the world in the percentage of its population who had college educations. For much of history, American universities have done far more research than their counterparts in other nations. This has meant that the American workforce has had higher technological skills than has the workforces of other nations. The research from American universities has made the United States a scientific leader.


Industry does little of America’s basic research. There are good business reasons for this. Only a very small number of research projects produce breakthroughs that lead to commercially viable projects. Many basic research projects fail completely. Others generate findings that are strictly of interest to specialists with no obvious applications. The minor projects lay the foundations for the breakthrough findings. However, most basic research does not produce anything even remotely profitable. So, industry concentrates on the higher return activity of developing commercial applications of technologies that are already known and tested.


Why has college attendance among Americans been so historically high, and why do American universities do so much research? The federal government has been responsible for much of this.


The United States was the only country to create large public universities with cheap tuition in every state or province in the nation. Congress passed the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which provided federal land to pay for the expenses of creating public universities. These land grants resulted in the creation of 70 universities, including Texas A&M, Ohio State University, Tuskegee and the University of California at Berkeley. Americans became more college-educated than people in other nations because there were more colleges and universities for them to attend.


The Hatch Act of 1914 provided federal support for agricultural research to be done at university agricultural research stations. In that period, European governments had similar strategies. Danish agriculture, which was particularly high-tech, had long enjoyed research support from the Danish government. Similar programs existed in Norway for fisheries.


The next step forward for the Americans was the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill allowed veterans of World War II to attend college for free. The government subsidized tuition, fees, books and contributed to living expenses. Millions of Americans received college benefits from the G. I. Bill. College enrollment nearly doubled, making the United States the world leader in the percentage of its population with a college education.


Some of the largesse of the G.I. Bill was motivated by national gratitude for the sacrifices made by our servicemen to protect freedom. However, there were larger strategic considerations at work as well. The United States had just fought World War II. World War II was won on technological superiority. The United States and Nazi Germany had been racing each other to build an atomic bomb. The United States won by a few months. Imagine what history would have looked like if the Germans had discovered the atomic bomb before we did and the Nazis were dropping hydrogen bombs on London and Moscow. America was going into the Cold War against a Soviet Union that was also a nuclear power; we could not afford to let the Russians become the technological superpower of the world.


This is what led to the founding of the National Science Foundation. Vannevar Bush, Dean of Engineering at MIT (no relation either to the Presidential Bushes or the Baked Bean Bushes) went to Washington with a plan to guarantee the long-term scientific superiority of the United States over Russia. The federal government would provide funding for every kind of basic science imaginable: biology, chemistry, physics, the works. The federal government would also provide funding for every kind of social science imaginable: political science, economics, sociology, psychology. The plan was that not only would the United States have stronger armed forces due to military technology, but we would have a better economy due to civilian technology, and we would be better able to solve social problems due to social technology. Large research grants would be given to universities so that top minds could create new knowledge in every one of these areas. The Communist system would lose out to the Free World on every conceivable performance criterion imaginable. No other nation had any institution comparable to the National Science Foundation.


Later on, the federal government would invest even further in university research. The National Institute of Health would be created to support biomedical research. The Defense Department would start funding its own research programs as well.


How successful was the decision to have the federal government fund university scientific research?


Jonathan Cole has written a massive history of American Universities called, fittingly, The Great American University. This is the source material from which much of this chapter draws. In that book, he lists the major scientific discoveries that came out of university research from World War II to the present day. The list is 150 pages long. That section of the book is mind-boggling.  


He then reviews the university systems of France, Germany, China and Britain. While all have their strengths and are catching up with us, they can not compare with our scientific accomplishments in our juggernaut years.


There is a common theme to the various stages that led to the excellence of the American University System.


Nearly all of these improvements involved big government.


Yes, America does have private universities. Many of them are excellent. The Ivy League, MIT, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Duke are all distinguished institutions. The Jesuit colleges of the United States such as Notre Dame, Boston College and Marquette, are first rate both in teaching and research. There are many fine smaller private teaching colleges such as Amherst and Oberlin.


However, public universities play a gigantic role in American higher education. The University of California at Berkeley, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Texas at Austin are among the finest universities in the world. Many of the “second best” schools in their states, such as Michigan State, Texas A&M University or UCLA are formidable institutions in their own right.    


Those public universities were created by the Hatch Act – an Act of Congress.


Students’ ability to attend those universities was based on state legislatures covering the majority share of the expenses of those institutions, allowing students to get tuition rates that were substantially subsidized.


America has some of the finest agricultural research institutions in the world. These include the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California at Davis, Texas A&M University and the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. The first three institutions are public. The Cornell Ag School is a fusion public-private hybrid. The Agriculture Schools of our nation received a tremendous stimulus from the Hatch Act.


The research expenses of our Tier I research universities, including such private institutions as Harvard, MIT and Stanford are largely paid by the federal government. This includes monies from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. Students’ ability to attend these very expensive institutions is defrayed by Pell Grants and other forms of federal financial aid.


America’s technological superiority has led to American economic superiority and American military superiority. The world buys our computers, our pharmaceutical drugs, our musical instruments, and our software. Our defense systems police the globe.


Take away that technological superiority, and we end buying someone else’s computers, someone else’s drugs, someone else’s musical instruments and someone else’s software. Other nations’ defense systems will be policing the globe.


Maintaining that technological superiority involves substantial government expenditure on higher education.


Technological superiority is expensive.


Losing that technological superiority is even more expensive.

For More Information

Most of this chapter is drawn from Cole, Jonathan. 2009. Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected. New York, Public Affairs.

On the balance of basic research between universities and industry, see the Science Coalition “Federal Government and U.S. Research Universities: Driving Innovation That Fuels the Economy.”

Their figures show that in 2009 industry only did 20% of basic research in the United States. Universities and the federal government did 65% of the basic research. Well over 80% of industrial R&D was in the commercial development of established technologies, rather than in basic or applied research into new technologies. The federal government and universities themselves provided the overwhelming majority of the funding for basic research.

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