The Genesis of the Office of Naval Research

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Rear Adm. Julius Furer

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Vice Adm. Harold Bowen

By Colin E. Babb

With the stroke of a pen in August 1946, President Harry Truman created a new government organization that would—for the first time in U.S. history—fund and manage peacetime scientific research conducted mostly outside of the government itself. In all honesty, however, the signing of the law merely gave the “new” organization an additional level of authority for a job it already had been doing for more than a year. The agency’s chief, Vice Adm. Harold Bowen, had to do little more than change the office stationery and the title on the front door, from the Office of Research and Invention—to the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

ONR was a progeny of the burning embers of history’s bloodiest war, a compromise born of the necessity to facilitate what many hoped would eventually be a civilian-led national organization that could fund all science and technology, not merely research of interest to the Navy. The government had been involved in promoting, conducting, and advising on research for generations, and the Navy had been conducting its own research since the establishment of the Naval Observatory in 1830 and the Naval Research Laboratory in 1923. World War II, however, saw the rise of new levels of government involvement in science and technology research.

The effort to provide some federal direction to research started in June 1940, well before bombs began falling at Pearl Harbor. Building on a tradition of World War I organizations such as the Naval Consulting Board and the National Research Council, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), headed by Vannevar Bush, coordinated civilian research toward military ends. Unlike the many advisory groups of the past, however, the NDRC (and its wartime successor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development [OSRD]) had both the power of the purse—with the means to contract for research as well as to provide grants—and the ear of the president. The Manhattan project would be the most famous product of OSRD’s efforts during the war, but the agency became the clearing house for new technology in nearly every area of science, from proximity fuzes to penicillin (at the height of the war effort in 1944, OSRD was funding more than $135 million in research). Divided into departments and offices, OSRD’s comprehensive portfolio eventually would be replicated in ONR’s structured approach to research.

Much military research during the war remained with the technical branches and bureaus within both services, and it was the desire to supplement this research that led to the creation of the Navy’s Office of the Coordinator of Research and Development in July 1941. This office, headed from December 1941 by Rear Adm. Julius Furer, had limited authority compared to the peacetime organization that would succeed it. Nominally, Furer’s role was to act as a liaison with all the bureaus, but missing was a direct role in contracting for research outside the Navy. This was done indirectly; Furer also was a member of OSRD, which funded research at the Navy’s request and direction.

By the end of the war, there was tremendous momentum for the continuation of the research model of civilian-led, government-funded, militarily useful research embodied in OSRD’s approach. This led to a number of efforts to create a national science funding organization. One was led by West Virginia Senator Harvey Kilgore, whose wartime hearings on the funding of scientific research and development eventually led to the “Kilgore Report” in 1945, which called for a national science agency. Another voice for government-funded science was Vannevar Bush, who, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, wrote a manifesto for a national science foundation, Science—The Endless Frontier, also in 1945. Disagreements between these two plans over control, geographical distribution of research, and other matters delayed the creation of the National Science Foundation until 1950. In the meantime, the Navy had its own plans for combining the structures and experiences of OSRD with those of Furer’s office into a new organization.

Seven decades ago, a new government science funding agency arose that helped change the Navy’s research into a research enterprise.

In May 1945, as the war was winding down, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal established the Office of Research and Inventions (ORI), which combined the Office of the Coordinator of Research and Development, the Special Devices Section (a component of the Bureau of Aeronautics), the Naval Research Laboratory, and the Office of Patents and Inventions. Vice Adm. Bowen, who had previously headed the two latter organizations, was made the director of the new agency. The basic outlines of ORI came from a group now known as the “Bird Dogs”—a group of young officers who had worked under Furer and his predecessor, Jerome Hunsaker—and Capt. Robert D. Conrad. The main attributes of the Bird Dogs’ plan involved placing a flag officer at the head of the organization and providing two advisory committees to support that person, one on research and another on research and development (eventually, ONR would require only that an officer of lieutenant commander or above be appointed chief, and the committees would be narrowed to one, what would become the Naval Research Advisory Committee).

Missing from ORI was a stamp of approval from congress, since it was presumed that as an organization created in wartime by the secretary of the navy under the war powers act it may not have had the authority to commit public funds in peacetime. Submitted to the House Committee on Naval Affairs on 27 March 1946, a bill establishing an Office of Naval Research, HR 5911, was introduced by committee chairman Carl Vinson. After some debate and minor revisions, the legislation passed the Senate and was signed into law in August 1946 as Public Law 588.

The new Office of Naval Research was immediately at the nexus of the growing Cold War, the only government agency able to maintain the connections between academia, industry, and the military services in the pursuit of new science and technology. Less than three months after the establishment of ONR, Conrad, who had been so instrumental during the war years in helping to formulate the policies embodied in the agency’s approach to research, described before an audience at the University of Illinois ONR’s already considerable portfolio, which consisted of “about 200 research contracts covering over 400 projects, totaling about $22,000,000. More than three-quarters of this volume is placed with universities and colleges. Considerably more than half these projects are under $25,000 apiece.” It was a strong beginning for a research model that soon would be replicated throughout the government.

The founding of ONR did not necessarily make what would later be called the “Naval Research Enterprise” an inevitable development. Important pieces of that enterprise were already in place in 1946 (such as the Navy laboratory structure in the various bureaus), but other vital components would come much later (such as the legal capability to provide grants, and partnerships with future organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, and others). What the founding of ONR represented most was a transition point between wartime and peacetime, between a paradigm of research that had tolerated serious government funding of science as an activity mainly in times of crisis, to one increasingly where government, academia, and industry were to become permanent partners in pursuit of science and technology—regardless of war or peace. In truth, it was a part of a transformation into a new kind of “peacetime,” one where the boundaries separating the beginning and ending of war have become blurred or indistinguishable. ONR, and the research enterprise that now surrounds it, has become an enduring and inseparable part of national science and technology—as well as of national defense.

About the author:

Colin Babb is a support contractor serving as the historian for the Office of Naval Research and managing editor of Future Force.