New Tools for Science Policy

No Help Wanted: Outside Technical Advice for the US Military

Registration opens soon!

About the Seminar

February 22, 2022 9:00am—10:30am

Policy emerges from institutions and institutions evolve. This is the equally the case for directives from high-level elected and appointed officials and for rules crafted within an obscure subagency to withstand legal challenges. To understand policy, then, means understanding institutional structures and how came to be, their history in a word. For science and technology advice, the history is quite short. The armed forces established the basic template after World War II. Regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency adopted its basic features, even though the military had by then turned away from serious consideration of outside expertise.

The basic story is a simple. The United States entered World War II with weapons no better than and often inferior to those of both allies and adversaries. The officer corps of the Army and Navy recognized the deficits and soon came to appreciate the warfighting advantages that followed from systems that were superior, such as microwave radar. Yet the basic innovation for this had come from Britain, and the steady stream of improvements following were the work of civilian scientists and engineers outside military control. This was a sharp departure from past practices. Since their earliest days, both Army and Navy had exercised essentially complete control over choice of weapon systems. The military lost this control once the White House placed civilians under Vannevar Bush in charge of advanced R&D and conceptual design and had no counterargument, as even before Pearl Harbor they were consumed by preparations for an unprecedentedly taxing industrial mobilization. And besides, neither service had all that much internal technological capacity.

After 1945, the services were determined to reassert their authority over R&D and weaponry. Although losing the first battle, over control of nuclear weapons, they built up internal technical capabilities earlier absent, at first looking to civilian advisers for guidance. Here they followed the pattern already established by the Army Air Forces while the war still continued, and later formalized as the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. Yet as new cohorts of officers rose to high rank, they pulled back from the unvarnished advice earlier delivered, reverting to prewar reliance on “professional” military judgment. Members of S&T advisory boards came to be selected more for alignment with service interests than independent thinking. Many, indeed, were retired officers and defense industry executives, others academics with research programs built on military funding. By the time Robert McNamara and his analytically-focused deputies entered the Pentagon in 1961, the services were well on the way to co-opting, beating off, or simply outlasting external S&T advice if and when it conflicted with the predilections of high-ranking officers.

In recent years, federal agencies have enrolled over 70,000 people in 1000 or so advisory bodies registered under the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act. Perhaps three-quarters of these committees have some sort of connection with science. The 1972 legislation reflected dissatisfaction with burgeoning S&T advisory mechanisms, which had begun only a few years earlier and seemed to some observers stacked to reflect special interests. To what extent that remains the case seems something of an open question for students of US science policy. The necessary starting point in exploring such matters is recognition that politics almost always and almost everywhere carries the day, as in the Pentagon and as it did when the Trump administration followed the military’s footsteps in filtering out unwanted S&T advice. To be effective, science politicy shoud not eschew politics but rather embrace it, uncomfortable as that may initially seem.