As we may discover…

by Danielle Fong


Vannevar Bush, with the first modern analog computer

“The National Research Foundation should <be> free from the obligation to place its contracts for research through advertising for bids. This is particularly so since the measure of a successful research contract lies not in the dollar cost but in the qualitative and quantitative contribution which is made to our knowledge. The extent of this contribution in turn depends on the creative spirit and talent which can be brought to bear within a research laboratory. The National Research Foundation must, therefore, be free to place its research contracts or grants not only with those institutions which have a demonstrated research capacity but also with other institutions whose latent talent or creative atmosphere affords promise of research success.”

Vannevar BushScience, the Endless Frontier (1945)

Vannevar Bush took over the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1938. The period from then until the Mansfield Amendment of 1973 (which turned ARPA into DARPA) was probably the most productive and efficient period for government sponsored research in history.

The competitive bid process, centralizing research in the universities and national labs, came later. I conjecture that, dollar for dollar, this process is 100x less effective than the old ARPA and National Defense Research Committee approach of finding and funding nascent research where and how it is ready to be done.

Also, even if historically it’s been difficult to predict, a few people have been all-stars. Vannevar Bush is one, as was Von Neumann, J.P. Morgan (who was a one man Silicon Valley, funding Edison, Ford, Tesla), Thomas Edison (who employed both the young Tesla and Ford!), Marvin Minsky, Stewart Brand, Ernest Rutherford, Arnold Sommerfeld, Neils Bohr, Steve Jobs, Bob Taylor, J. C. R. Licklider, J.R. Oppenheimer, etc.

Even in the modern era, where a billion dollar software company is a “unicorn”, showing up only once in 1,538 VC funded startups, some pick them time and time again. (like Keith Rabois, who has personally funded 8 of the 36 since 2003 — Square, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Yelp. Palantir, Youtube, LendingClub, Yammer.)…/11/02/welcome-to-the-unicorn-club/

The modern, largely faceless NSF doesn’t give the authority for a modern Bob Taylor to pick researchers and research projects with anything like the facility that Keith has been able to pick his own investments. Time for a change

(hat-tip to David Dalrymple and  Katriona Guthrie-Honea)