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Farah Stockman

The Cold War’s silver lining

Fear of the Soviets made the US invest in science

If you grew up in the shadow of the Cold War like me, you worried about nuclear Armageddon. You breathed a sigh of relief when the Berlin Wall fell. And you’re nervous now, with Russia’s recent return to “us vs. them” rhetoric.

But those bad old days had an upside: The existential threat pushed us to make massive federal investments in science and scientific education, aimed at keeping America one step ahead of those pesky Communists. Many of the technologies we rely on today — from cellphones to computers to the Internet — were a direct result of the Evil Empire breathing down our necks.

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“Having a competitor is crucial,” said James Dougherty, co-founder of the health care IT company Madaket, who lectures frequently about US economic competitiveness. “When I play a good tennis player, I play better. The same is true for the United States. From an innovation perspective, competition was essential.”

Science proved its worth during World War II, after physicists built the atomic bomb that cemented the US victory. After the war, an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote an influential report that argued for continuing federal investments in research. That report helped spur the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950, and a host of other initiatives.

But nothing spurred more federal funding for science than Sputnik, the Soviet launch of the world’s first satellite into space in 1957. Sputnik’s success shocked and amazed Americans, who established NASA one year later. Funding for the so-called “space race” skyrocketed — until Americans beat the Russians to the moon in 1969.

Sputnik also sparked another game-changing research agency: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, which was charged with building futuristic war-fighting machines and conducting cutting-edge experiments.

In the 1960s, DARPA funded a network of computers that could send electronic messages to one another. Supporters argued that it would allow the government and the military to communicate in the event of a Soviet attack on the centralized telephone system. “ARPANET” became operational in the early 1980s. Eventually, it evolved into the Internet. (So no, Vladimir, the Internet is not a “CIA project.” It’s a US military project. Get it straight.)

DARPA also made the early investments required to develop “micro-electro-mechanical systems” which are used today in everything from computers to cellphones.

In some ways, the Cold War was a perfect driver. It put enough pressure on us to keep research funding high. But the threat wasn’t so great that scientists purely focused on building signature weapons systems, like the atomic bomb. DARPA-funded scientists had time to explore, experiment, and fail. That’s precisely why they were so successful.

Today, as we enjoy the status of the world’s sole superpower, federal funding for science has dropped to a third of what it was at the height of the Cold War. The vast majority of funding now comes from the private sector. But private funds are aimed at getting products onto the market as soon as possible, not pursuing broad scientific knowledge that might never turn a profit.

Of course, it’s hard to argue that all that money we spent on science during the Cold War made sense. Did we really need to develop computers that could withstand a nuclear blast and automatically retaliate with a nuclear strike on Moscow, even after every American was dead? Probably not. Would we really have spent quite so much money on early warning radar systems to detect ballistic missiles — like the massive “PAVE PAW” radar on Cape Cod — had we known the Soviet Union was going to fall?

“There’s no question that we spent more because of the competition,” said Stewart Leslie, author of “The Cold War and American Science,’’ whose father worked for the US space program during the period. “The question is whether it was well spent and whether we would have gotten a better return had we spent it on civilian technology.”

If we’d focused on climate change and electric cars, instead of nuclear weapons and landing on the moon, we’d probably all be driving electric cars today. But this is an old story. Throughout human history, military competition has always been a key driver of innovation.

Wars may not be the most efficient way to invest in science, but they seem to be the only way to push us to invest so much.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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