Jason Gallo, University of Wisconsin
In this paper I examine the role of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). I argue that NSF’s involvement in the NNI represents a broad, long-term federal commitment to achieving technological and economic advantage in an international competition to develop this emerging field, based upon its Cold War history of supporting scientific manpower and its role building the nation’s research infrastructure. The NNI, in which the NSF is a central actor, is a strategic endeavor by the US federal government to achieve a “revolution in technology and industry” ( HYPERLINK “http://www.nano.gov” www.nano.gov). Kleinman (1995: 192) has argued that the rhetoric of high technology in federal policy discourse “clearly displaced” the postwar emphasis on basic research in science policy debates, becoming firmly entrenched in Washington with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. I argue that although the rhetoric of the NNI, announced by Clinton in 2000, reflects the post-Cold War emphasis on technology and economic competitiveness, the scientific and institutional foundations of the NNI are deeply rooted in the Cold War era and shaped by its historical contours.
According to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators: 1993 report, the end of Cold War “irreversibly redefined” the debate surrounding US science and technology policy, shifting the focus “from military technological superiority” to federal initiatives to “recapture global commercial primacy.” The NSF participates in this strategy by supporting basic nanotechnology research as well as the funding of university-based research centers, therefore gestating a highly skilled science and engineering workforce crafted to sustain the nanotechnology “revolution.” Using primary documents drawn from the National Archives Record group 307 and the oral history collection of the Charles Babbage Institute, I examine the origins of the NSF policy of support for what it refers to as Ideas, People, and Tools, the underpinnings of its role in the NNI.
The genesis of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in the aftermath of the Second World War and the historical shifts in NSF policy from the Foundation’s inception in 1950 through the Internet boom of the 1990s are critical to understanding current US nanotechnology policy. The contentious debate over what shape post-war US science policy should take, notably the competing visions put forth for a national science agency by Vannevar Bush in Science the Endless Frontier and New Deal Democrats, delayed the creation of NSF until 1950, forcing the Foundation into the role “a puny partner” (Kelves 1987: 358) in the constellation of federal agencies. This prompted the NSF to develop strategies for maintaining its existence, with the Foundation initially focusing only on areas of basic research and university facilities support, and strictly rejecting any policy coordination role that could put it in conflict with other agencies. Through support for university scientists and facilities, the NSF not only developed a broad constituency, but also developed a working strategy for building the US scientific infrastructure and training the scientific manpower that was argued to be critical to national security and economic competitiveness, and would lay the groundwork for support of nanotechnology.