Office of Scientific Research and Development

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OFFICE OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT (OSRD) was a federal agency created in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote research on medicine and weapons technology. In the decades prior to World War II, the federal government had initiated limited research endeavors in the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Standards, and other agencies. But the OSRD signaled a greatly expanded federal commitment to science and prepared the way for the even larger science programs of the 1950s. It solidified personal and professional ties between scientists, military leaders, and industry executives. It taught government and military officials the value of basic re-search for warfare and economic prosperity. It helped consolidate the scientific leadership of key universities such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California at Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago. And by contracting with existing university and industrial laboratories rather than directly hiring or drafting researchers, the OSRD allayed scientists' fears that large-scale public funding would be accompanied by strict government control.

In the spring of 1940 a group of scientists led by engineer and Carnegie Institution of Washington president Vannevar Bush contacted Roosevelt to discuss how the nation's extra-governmental scientific resources might be applied to the national mobilization effort. Roosevelt readily agreed with Bush that the success of the American war effort would depend in large part on scientific re-search. He created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), a civilian agency sustained by his emergency funds, to mediate between the scientific community and military leaders. The research priorities of the NDRC were determined almost entirely by Bush and his colleagues, most notably chemist James B. Conant, the president of Harvard; physicist Karl T. Compton, the president of MIT; and Bell Laboratories head Frank B. Jewett.

Bush pushed for still more authority, including involvement in the military planning of weapons research and the ability to build prototypes of new devices. Roosevelt acceded on 28 June 1941, authorizing the OSRD. The NDRC became a subdivision of the OSRD, alongside a new Committee for Medical Research. As OSRD director, Bush quickly built a close relationship with Roosevelt, meeting with him regularly throughout the war as an informal science adviser. He also gained the confidence of military and congressional leaders, many of whom were more comfortable with his emphasis on private enterprise than with Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism.

Federal support for science increased dramatically under the OSRD, with tangible results. The entire federal budget for science had been around $69 million in 1940, but the OSRD alone spent almost $450 million during its five years of existence. In 1944 the government bankrolled three-fourths of the nation's scientific research. OSRD contractors developed a number of important new devices, including radar and the proximity fuse. The agency also facilitated the mass production of penicillin and over-saw the atomic bomb project before it was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers' Manhattan District in late 1942.

Hoping to increase the perceived need for a peacetime federal science agency, Bush overrode internal opposition and shut down the OSRD in 1947. Responsibility for federal contracts was transferred to the Office of Naval Research, the National Institutes of Health, the Atomic Energy Commission, and eventually the National Science Foundation.


Baxter, James Phinney. Scientists Against Time. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968 [1946].

Owens, Larry. "The Counterproductive Management of Science in the Second World War: Vannevar Bush and the Office of Scientific Research and Development." Business History Review 68 (Winter 1994): 515–576.

Stewart, Irvin. Organizing Scientific Research for War: The Administrative History of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948.

Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York: Free Press, 1997.


See alsoManhattan Project ; National Science Foundation .

Office of Scientific Research and Development

views updated Jun 08 2018

Office of Scientific Research and Development. See Science, Technology, War, and the Military.

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United States. Office of Scientific Research and Development