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date: 04 December 2022

The Evolution of Public Funding of Science in the United States From World War II to the Presentfree

The Evolution of Public Funding of Science in the United States From World War II to the Presentfree

  • Kei KoizumiKei KoizumiAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science


Large-scale U.S. government support of scientific research began in World War II with physics, and rapidly expanded in the postwar era to contribute strongly to the United States’ emergence as the world’s leading scientific and economic superpower in the latter half of the 20th century. Vannevar Bush, who directed President Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II science efforts, in the closing days of the War advocated forcefully for U.S. government funding of scientific research to continue even in peacetime to support three important government missions of national security, health, and the economy. He also argued forcefully for the importance of basic research supported by the federal government but steered and guided by the scientific community. This vision guided an expanding role for the U.S. government in supporting research not only at government laboratories but also in non-government institutions, especially universities.

Although internationally comparable data are difficult to obtain, the U.S. government appears to be the single largest national funder of physics research. The U.S. government support of physics research comes from many different federal departments and agencies. Federal agencies also invest in experimental development based on research discoveries of physics. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science is by far the dominant supporter of physics research in the United States, and DOE’s national laboratories are the dominant performers of U.S. government-supported physics research. Since the 1970s, U.S. government support of physics research has been stagnant with the greatest growth in U.S. government research support having shifted since the 1990s to the life sciences and computer sciences.


  • History of Physics
  • Physics Policy and Management

1. Introduction

The history of public (government) funding of science in the United States is a long one, dating to the early years of the U.S. federal government. Arguably, the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, was the first American president to fund scientific research when his presidential administration financially supported the 1804 expedition of (Meriwether) Lewis and (William) Clark, primarily to map the newly acquired U.S. territory but also to investigate the territory’s plants, animals, and geography. In the 19th century, the federal government supported modest amounts of scientific research, primarily in the areas of agriculture and aeronautics. Although modest in dollar terms, the U.S. government created a nationwide network of government-supported agriculture research through successive laws dating back to the 19th century: agriculture research investments were largely the result of establishment of the land grant universities under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, agricultural research stations created under the Hatch Act of 1887, and extension services (translating the results of agriculture research to farmers) in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Large-scale government support of scientific research, however, did not begin until the 20th century during World War II. In the war’s immediate aftermath, the federal government greatly expanded its support of scientific research to become the major funding source for the U.S. scientific enterprise, which contributed strongly to the United States’ emergence as the world’s leading scientific and economic superpower in the latter half of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the U.S. government remains the largest single financial supporter of scientific research in the world, although in coming years the government of the People’s Republic of China is poised to assume that role given current trends.

This article examines the history of U.S. federal government support of scientific research after World War II, with a focus on physics research. It describes the historical rationales for government support, the long-term trends in funding for physics and other research, and the funding sources and performers of U.S. government-sponsored physics research. It demonstrates the important role of U.S. government-supported research in building the U.S. and global physics research enterprises of today.

2. Public Funding for Science in the United States, World War II to the Present

2.1 From World War II to the End of the Cold War

Large-scale U.S. government support of scientific research began with physics to which significant attention was granted during World War II. Shortly after U.S. entry into World War II, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, catalyzed to some extent by Albert Einstein and other physicists, launched the Manhattan Project as well as other smaller research efforts (e.g., the MIT Radiation Laboratory, or research on the proximity fuse) to harness physics and other science disciplines to help the Allies prevail in the war. Although secret at the time, the Manhattan Project is now the most renowned of these wartime efforts and involved thousands of physicists and other scientific personnel organized and supported by the federal government at multiple sites to develop and deploy an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was not only a well-financed, complex, and ambitious scientific undertaking; it was also unprecedented in the sense that before World War II, the federal government had only a minor role in supporting scientific research, mostly in its own laboratories organized around missions such as agriculture, and an even more minimal role in supporting university or basic research.

As World War II was drawing to a close, President Roosevelt asked the director of his wartime science office and unofficial science adviser, Vannevar Bush, for recommendations on the role that science should play in the postwar era. Dr. Bush’s report, Science – The Endless Frontier, was delivered to Roosevelt’s successor President Harry Truman in July 1945, just before World War II ended in August 1945. In the report, Bush advocated forcefully that U.S. government funding of scientific research should continue to support three important government missions: national security, health, and the economy. He also argued forcefully for the importance of basic research supported by the federal government, but steered and guided by the scientific community whom he felt could best evaluate scientific needs and quality.

In the years that followed, Bush’s ideas went through debate and revision, but ultimately led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950. Additionally, they laid the foundation for transitioning the Manhattan Project laboratories into ongoing national laboratories devoted to multiple disciplines and national missions. Perhaps most importantly, they resulted in an expanding role for the U.S. government in supporting research not only at government laboratories, but also in non-government institutions, especially universities. In other words, there was no going back to the pre-World War II era of a government disconnected from the U.S. science enterprise.

In addition to a strong government funding role for scientific research, Bush’s vision was realized in the establishment of peer review as the preferred method for allocating government research funding, especially basic research. Peer review, although a long-established method for reviewing scientific manuscripts for publication, was a radical idea at the time for making funding decisions because it put the scientific community itself — as opposed to elected and non-elected government officials — in charge of allocating government (public) funds to the scientific community. Now, it is an established method for allocating research funding. Although the ultimate funding decisions were left in the hands of government leaders and program managers, the peer-review culture that developed after World War II in funding agencies including NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Defense (DOD) relied heavily on the judgment of external peer reviewers from the science community as the basis for making funding decisions. That system endures to this day and has become a global model.

Especially in the early postwar years, federal support of research was dominated by physics research, a legacy of the Manhattan Project’s mission success, the continuing threat of nuclear warfare as the United States entered the Cold War, and the potential to harness the power from nuclear fission to meet civilian energy needs and for other peaceful purposes. Much of the Manhattan Project and other World War II-era government-supported physics research in the national laboratories transitioned to the stewardship of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) after World War II. Federal support of research, especially physics, received another boost in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik I into orbit. In response, the U.S. government boosted federal support of research even further, introduced numerous new federal agencies and programs in both scientific research and science education, and then boosted research support again in the 1960s as the Cold War-inspired Space Race to be the first nation to put humans on the moon picked up steam. As Figure 1 shows, after 1956 U.S. government support of research grew dramatically (these charts, and others, exclude experimental development funding; in other words, they illustrate the “R” only and not the “D” in research and development (R&D); before 1956, there are fragmentary data about government support of research, but these indicate that government support of research was negligible before World War II, grew during World War II, and expanded dramatically in the decade leading to 1956). In these years, the U.S. government did not collect data on physics research specifically, but the programs and missions and laboratories at that time were geared dominantly to physics-related concerns. Since then, the data in Figure 1 shows that physics has waned considerably in terms of importance within the federal research portfolio.

Figure 1. U.S. government support of research, physics research, and physical sciences. Research 1956–2017 (in billions of inflation-adjusted U.S. dollars).

Source: National Science Foundation, 2019.

2.2 Government Support of Physics Research

Although internationally comparable data are difficult to obtain, it appears that the U.S. government is the single largest national funder of physics research. In 2015, NSF’s annual survey of federal research funding agencies found that the U.S. government invested $6.5 billion in physical sciences research, of which slightly less than half ($3.0 billion) supported physics research. (The total U.S. government research investment that year was $63.6 billion, of which slightly less than half was devoted to life sciences research; see NSF/NCSES, 2017a.) NSF, acting as the statistical agency for the U.S. science enterprise in the federal government, began collecting data on federal funding of research by discipline in 1967. In NSF’s taxonomy of science and engineering disciplines, which has been mostly unchanged since the 1970s, physics research is classified under physical sciences research with chemistry, astronomy, and “other physical sciences” (Yamaner, 2017). (Experimental development, or the “D” in R&D, is not classified by discipline as research, the “R” in R&D, is.)

U.S. government support of physics research comes from many different federal departments and agencies. In 2015, the $3.0 billion for physics research came from multiple agencies: the Department of Energy (DOE, $1.7 billion), the Department of Defense (DOD, $422 million), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, $421 million), the National Science Foundation (NSF, $266 million), the Department of Commerce ($189 million), and the remainder from five other federal agencies (NSF/NCSES, 2017b). Within the dominant DOE, nearly all of the physics research funding ($1.6 billion) came from the Office of Science. Because research funding for all of these agencies comes from annual appropriations and is decided by different decision-makers with little coordination, federal funding for physics research (and for nearly all disciplines) is the result of a fragmented, decentralized decision-making process but the end result is a remarkably stable funding level over time and with few shifts in the composition of the federal physics research portfolio.

In addition to U.S. government support of research, federal agencies also invest in experimental development based on research discoveries of physics, but a lack of data prevents us from knowing the exact amounts devoted to physics. The U.S. government also invests in research infrastructure, which is especially important for a field such as physics because of the field’s reliance on accelerators, light sources, and other large, expensive scientific facilities. Again, however, the U.S. government does not collect data on research infrastructure (facilities) expenditures by science and engineering discipline, making it difficult to know the scale of U.S. government investments in physics facilities or to compare that investment with other nations’ R&D investments.

2.3 The Special Funding Role of the Department of Energy

DOE’s Office of Science is by far the dominant supporter of physics research in the United States, particularly through its longstanding High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics programs. DOE’s Office of Science is the leading sponsor of ten of the United States’ multi-program and multi-disciplinary national laboratories that are owned by the U.S. government but operated under contract by companies, universities, or non-profit organizations. These ten national laboratories (Ames Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility) are among the iconic laboratories for physics research with long histories of frontier research in physics and other disciplines. In addition to the DOE Office of Science support of research at these national labs, other components of the DOE provide primary support for physics research at the three weapons laboratories that were originally established in World War II to develop nuclear weapons (Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories). U.S. government funding builds and operates user facilities in physics at these laboratories that are utilized by international researchers. Among other U.S. government funding agencies in physics research, NSF specializes in research grant funding to support physics research at universities; NASA specializes in astrophysics research and other research in support of its space mission; DOD supports physics research at universities, defense laboratories, and the national labs in support of national security; and the Department of Commerce supports physics research primarily at government laboratories of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

DOE’s national laboratories are the dominant performers of government-supported physics research in the United States. Although exact data by discipline are not available, nearly half of the $3.0 billion federal physics research portfolio was performed at the DOE national laboratories, a quarter at U.S. universities, and the remainder at a mix of government laboratories, non-profit institutions, companies, and abroad (NSF/NCSES, 2017a). For the entire federal research funding portfolio, the mix of performers of government-funded research is slightly different: universities are the dominant performer (approximately 40%), followed by government laboratories (approximately 25%), national laboratories (approximately 13%), companies (approximately 12%), non-profit institutions (9%), and minor shares for state and local government performers and foreign performers (NSF/NCSES, 2018). Physics research, with the dominant role of national laboratories as performers and a significant share of research performed abroad, is an outlier compared to the performers of government-funded research in other disciplines because of the dependence on physics research on large-scale scientific facilities compared to other disciplines. These facilities where research is performed are increasingly too expensive for non-government institutions to support and are built at national laboratories or at foreign sites in multinational collaborations.

2.4 Recent Trends in Federal Funding for Research

U.S. government support of physics research has been stagnant since the 1970s. The $3.0 billion total for 2015 is, in inflation-adjusted terms, roughly the same annual investment as in the early 1970s, and has fluctuated within a narrow band up until now, even as the total federal investment in research has grown substantially in the long term and also fluctuated year by year over the same time period. Fragmentary data indicate that the U.S. investment in physics research was higher in today’s dollars in the early to mid-1960s. Similarly, the broader category of federal support of physical sciences research (encompassing astronomy, chemistry, and other disciplines) has also stagnated over the last several decades and has shrunk as a share of all U.S. government support for research.

Instead of physics, U.S. government support for the life sciences and computer sciences has seen the greatest growth since the 1990s. In particular, it is easy to see in Figure 1 the dramatic increase in research funding due to the doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget between 1998 and 2003, which primarily benefited life sciences research; in 2009 and 2010, the effects of one-time research investments through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that continued into 2010, which benefited multiple science and engineering disciplines (though not, from the data, physics research); and finally 2016 and 2017 NIH budget increases, again benefiting primarily life sciences research. As a result, the U.S. government investment in scientific research has in recent years plateaued at $70 billion annually in inflation-adjusted dollars, although the total is subject to annual fluctuations. While as a share of the U.S. economy the $70 billion total is less than its share in past decades, the federal investment in real dollars is higher today than any of the years of the 20th century.

Remarkably, Vannevar Bush’s vision of government investments in research to benefit the national missions of defense, health, and the economy still guides U.S. investments in scientific R&D in the 21st century. The majority of the government’s investments in R&D expenditures are for experimental development (the “D” in R&D, rather than “R” for research) to support the national defense mission. Excluding national defense, a majority of government research is supported by NIH for its mission of human health. Of the remainder, although some investments fulfill other national missions in agriculture, energy, the environment, and transportation, rhetorically nearly all government investments in research are justified politically for their future potential contributions to the U.S. economy, especially non-mission-connected basic research investments from NSF and DOE’s Office of Science.

In the mid-2000s, when these trends favoring the life sciences and other sciences were already apparent, the U.S. physics research community and other leaders in the U.S. science and policy enterprise tried on several occasions to create a policy initiative to boost federal funding of physical sciences research to sustain U.S. economic competitiveness. In President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (2006), the U.S. Congress’ America COMPETES Act (2007), and President Barack Obama’s President’s Plan for Science and Innovation (2009), policymakers reached consensus, modeled on the successful campaign to double the NIH budget over five years, on doubling the budgets of three U.S. science agencies over a decade: DOE’s Office of Science, NSF, and the NIST laboratories. Not coincidentally, these were and remain three of the top five sponsors of physics research, with DOD and NASA (the other two agencies in the top five) excluded from the initiatives because their physics investments were small fractions of their total budgets. Despite the consensus, however, ultimately these initiatives were unsuccessful and federal funding for these agencies in general, and physics research specifically, remained stagnant.

It is perhaps telling that U.S. lawmakers were able to successfully double life sciences research funding over five years in the NIH budget at the beginning of the 21st century but were unsuccessful a few years later in doubling physical sciences research funding over a decade. There are many interpretations of the reasons for this, with the primary explanations being the political popularity of life sciences research in a post-Cold War era because of its easily understood connection to developing cures and improving human health, and timing (four of the five years of the NIH doubling campaign were years in which the U.S. government enjoyed budget surpluses, while the physical sciences doubling campaigns got underway at a time of fiscal restraint prompted by ballooning budget deficits). Whatever the reason, the primacy of physics in the U.S. government research portfolio ended in the 1970s; the only vestige of that primacy is that all U.S. presidential science advisors from Vannevar Bush on have had physics backgrounds, even as the research portfolios they help to oversee have had shrinking shares devoted to physics. Even that tradition came to an end in 2018, with the nomination of Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist, as presidential science adviser to President Trump.

As context, it is important to note that the U.S. government is a major but far from the exclusive sponsor of research in the United States (Boroush, 2018). NSF data show that (again, excluding experimental development or the “D” in R&D), in 2016 total U.S. research funding from all sources (public and private) was $187 billion; the federal government funded 39% of all the research performed in the United States, just short of private firms’ 41%, followed by smaller shares for universities and colleges with their own funds (9%), and non-academic non-profit institutions (9%). Within these shares, there are important distinctions: government funding dominates in basic research, while company funding dominates in applied research. Although little data is available on physics research specifically, there is ample reason to believe that government and university funding are the largest sources of funding for all physics research performed in the United States because company funding tends to be more prominent in other disciplines such as engineering, computer sciences, life sciences, chemical sciences, and materials sciences.

In the meantime, other nations have expanded their focus on government support of research in general and physics research. Although not the focus of this article, it is worth noting that in physics the multinational CERN, supported by multiple national governments mostly in the European Union, has become the home of the largest physics experimental facility in the world. Indeed, because of CERN’s strength in physics, a portion of U.S. government physics research funding supports U.S. physicists’ research at CERN and contributions to CERN-based experiments at CERN facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). In the 21st century, the government of the People’s Republic of China has also expanded dramatically its support of research at rates greater than 8% a year for most years, resulting in the Chinese government taking second place after the United States among the largest government sponsors of research. If current trends continue, sometime around 2020 the Chinese government will become the largest government sponsor of research. Because of the difficulties in determining the disciplinary composition of Chinese government research, it remains unclear how U.S. and Chinese government support of physics research compare.

3. Conclusion

U.S. government support of basic scientific research in general and physics research more specifically has a long history dating back to World War II. Both this federal support for research and the peer-review process to allocate funding to non-government scientists have served as a model for other governments in building their funding mechanisms for supporting scientific research. The U.S. scientific ecosystem of government laboratories, national laboratories, research universities, and companies supported by government research funding has also been an inspiration to other nations. As a result, the United States now faces the challenge of sustaining its longstanding research leadership in physics and other fields as other nations, especially China and the combined forces of the European Union’s members, have committed to steadily increasing government investments in research at the same time U.S. funding has plateaued. Even as there is widespread recognition, especially after the discovery of the Higgs Boson at the LHC, that leadership in particle physics has moved away from the United States and that U.S. leadership in other disciplines is also threatened, there is little evidence of the political will needed to increase investments in U.S. government-supported research to keep up with other nations and to sustain U.S. leadership. Thus, a major question for U.S. science and physics in coming years is whether the United States will find the political will to increase government research funding on a sustained basis, or whether the United States will keep research funding in general, and physics research specifically, at current levels and thereby continue to cede scientific leadership to other nations.

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