Science: Building a Stronger Nation

Public Higher Education Superstar

Rosalyn Yalow, Hunter College graduate and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1977.

Sputnik rocket launched into space by Soviet Union, 1957.

Early 19th-century explorations into botany and zoology introduced field work into the academic curriculum. In the late 19th century, telescopes, observatories and laboratories became the tangible signs of an increasingly important role for scientific studies on campus. The growing popularity of the Bachelor of Science degree testified to the decline of a classical curriculum based on language study in favor of such fields as physics, chemistry and biology.

Professor Stephen M. Babcock, University of Wisconsin, Madison, created a test in 1890 to measure the level of butterfat in milk, thereby revolutionizing the dairy industry.

Agricultural science and engineering are central to the mission of land-grant colleges, which have trained many people in those fields. Some of their great advances include: the work of University of Wisconsin scientist Stephen Babcock in advancing the Wisconsin dairy industry by developing a test in 1890 to measure butterfat content in milk; Orville Vogel’s work at Washington State University increased grain yields after World War II, reducing hunger in the developing world in the 1960s; and Barbara McClintock, a graduate of Cornell University, was a leading geneticist of the 20th century.

During World War II, the Manhattan Project brought together some of the greatest scientific minds, including UC Berkeley professors Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence, to develop the atomic bomb. Its success showed how government research money could harness the intellectual capital of the academy, which occurred on a large scale after World War II. Spurred by Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report “Science: The Endless Frontier,” and the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950, federal funding of science in the university increased during the Cold War. The launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in 1957 challenged American scientific and technological superiority. In response, Congress passed the 1958 National Defense Education Act, supplying student loans and graduate fellowships to train new teachers and professors in science, math and engineering.

College District, Texas, c. 2000.Federal research and development funding increased more than 500% from $2.7 billion to more than $15 billion from 1955 to 1965. This greatly benefited America’s universities, while tying them more closely to what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” In California, the defense industry and federal research funding accounted for 50% of economic growth between 1955 and 1965, with much of that money invested in the state’s public higher education. Federal investment in scientific research and training in American colleges and universities laid the groundwork for America’s post-World War II economic growth.

Biology student at El Paso Community College, Texas creates DNA strand, c. 2005.
Hong Wen, now a graduate of the microelectronicsphotonics program at the University of Arkansas, is shown as a doctoral student transferring a sample nanomaterial from a molecular-beam epitaxy machine to a scanning tunneling microscope, c. 2005.
Automotive training at Cedar Valley College, part of the Dallas County Community College District, Texas, c. 2000.
University of Maryland Terrapin Rocket Project Staff, 1956.