Harry S. Truman photo

Memorandum of Disapproval of the National Science Foundation Bill.

August 06, 1947

I AM withholding my approval of S. 526, the National Science Foundation Bill.

I take this action with deep regret. On several occasions, I have urged the Congress to enact legislation to establish a National Science Foundation. Our national security and welfare require that we give direct support to basic scientific research and take steps to increase the number of trained scientists. I had hoped earnestly that the Congress would enact a bill to establish a suitable agency to stimulate and correlate the activities of the Government directed toward these ends.

However, this bill contains provisions which represent such a marked departure from sound principles for the administration of public affairs that I cannot give it my approval. It would, in effect, vest the determination of vital national policies, the expenditure of large public funds, and the administration of important governmental functions in a group of individuals who would be essentially private citizens. The proposed National Science Foundation would be divorced from control by the people to an extent that implies a distinct lack of faith in democratic processes.

Moreover, the organization prescribed in the bill is so complex and unwieldy that there is grave danger that it would impede rather than promote the Government's efforts to encourage scientific research. The Government's expenditures for scientific research and development activities currently amount to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Under present world conditions, this work is vital to our national welfare and security. We cannot afford to jeopardize it by imposing upon it an organization so likely to prove unworkable.

Under S. 526, the powers of the proposed Foundation would be vested in 24 members, appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. These members would be part time officials, required to meet only once each year. This group would, in turn, select biennially from among its 24 members an executive committee of 9 members and would exercise its powers through the executive committee. This 9 member executive committee would also be a part time body required to meet only six times a year.

The Foundation would have a chief executive officer, known as the Director. He would be appointed by the 9 member executive committee unless the 24 member body itself chose to appoint him. The power and duties of the Director would be prescribed by the executive committee and exercised under its supervision.

There would be within the Foundation a number of divisions, each exercising such duties and performing such functions as the Foundation prescribed. There would be no limit upon the number of divisions which the Foundation could establish. For each division there would be a divisional committee. In the case of the Committee for the Division of National Defense, there would be a limit of 36 members, half of whom would be appointed by the Foundation and half of whom would be representatives of the armed services. In other cases, there would be no limit upon the number of members of each divisional committee and all of the members would be appointed by the Foundation. Not only would these part time committees furnish advice and make recommendations concerning the Government's scientific research program, but each divisional committee would also "exercise and perform the powers and duties of its division".

The Foundation would also be empowered to appoint commissions in various fields of research. Three such commissions are spedfled in the bill, and the Foundation could appoint as many additional special commissions as it saw fit. Each such commission would consist of 6 eminent scientists and 5 members from the general public. After making a survey of public and private research already being carried on, each of these commissions would recommend a research program within its field and constantly review the manner in which such program was being carried out.

Apart from the conflicts and confusion which would result from this complex organization, the bill would violate basic principles which make for responsible government.

The Constitution places upon the President the responsibility for seeing that the laws are faithfully executed. In the administration of this law, however, he would be deprived of effective means for discharging his constitutional responsibility.

Full governmental authority and responsibility would be placed in 24 part time officers whom the President could not effectively hold responsible for proper administration. Neither could the Director be held responsible by the President, for he would be the appointee of the Foundation and would be insulated from the President by two layers of part time boards. In the case of the divisions and special commissions, the lack of accountability would be even more aggravated.

The members of the Foundation would also be authorized to appoint the full time administrative head of an important agency in the executive branch of the Government, as well as more than 70 additional part time officials in whom important governmental powers would be vested. This represents a substantial denial of the President's appointing power, as well as an impairment of his ability to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

The ability of the President to meet his constitutional responsibility would be further impaired by the provisions of the bill which would establish an Interdepartmental Committee on Science. The members of this committee would be representatives of departments and agencies who are responsible to the President, but its chairman would be the Director of the Foundation. It would be the duty of this committee to correlate data on all Federal scientific research activities and to make recommendations to the President, to the Foundation, and to the other departments and agencies of the Government concerning the performance of their functions in this field. Thus, an officer who is not appointed by the President, and not responsible to him, would be the man primarily charged with the performance of functions which are peculiarly within the scope of the President's duties--that is, the coordination of the work of executive agencies. This is especially unwise when the activities concerned are so intimately related to the national welfare and security.

There are other compelling reasons why control over the administration of this law should not be vested in the part time members of the Foundation. The Foundation would make grants of Federal funds to support scientific research. The recipients of these grants would be determined in the discretion of the Foundation. The qualifications prescribed in the bill for members of the Foundation would insure that most of them would be individuals employed by institutions or organizations eligible for the grants. Thus, there is created a conflict of interests which would inevitably give rise to suspicions of favoritism, regardless of the complete integrity of the members of the Foundation.

It is unfair to individuals asked to accept public office that they should be put in such a vulnerable position. Moreover, colleges and universities and other organizations seeking aid for scientific research deserve the assurance that the manner and extent of their participation in a national program will be determined on a completely impartial and objective basis.

Adherence to the principle that responsibility for the administration of the law should be vested in full time officers who can be held accountable will not prevent the Government from utilizing with great advantage the services of eminent scientists who are available only for part time duty. We have ample evidence of the patriotic and unselfish contributions which such citizens can make to the success of governmental programs. The role to be played by such part time participation, however, is more appropriately one of an advisory nature rather than of full responsibility. In other governmental programs of vast national importance, this method is used to obtain advice and recommendations from impartial experts as well as from parties in interest. There is no reason why such a system cannot be incorporated in legislation establishing a National Science Foundation.

For the reasons I have indicated, I believe that this bill raises basic issues of public policy. There would be no means for insuring responsible administration of the law. If the principles of this bill were extended throughout the Government, the result would be utter chaos. There is no justification in this case for casting aside sound principles for normal governmental operations. I cannot agree that our traditional, democratic form of government is incapable of properly administering a program for encouraging scientific research and education.

It is unfortunate that this legislation cannot be approved in its present form. The withholding of my signature at this time, however, will not prevent the Government from engaging in the support of scientific research. Research activities are carried on extensively by various executive 'agencies under existing laws, and would continue to be carried on whether or not this bill became law. The only funds made available by the Congress for expenditure by the Foundation are funds which might be transferred from other agencies, thereby reducing the amounts which those other agencies could spend for similar purposes. No funds were made available for the scholarships and fellowships authorized in the bill. Thus, there would be no immediate gains which would justify accepting the risks involved in the approval of this legislation.

I am convinced that the long-range interests of scientific research and education will be best served by continuing our efforts to obtain a Science Foundation free from the vital defects of this bill. These defects in the structure of the proposed Foundation are so fundamental that it would not be practicable to permit its establishment in this form with the hope that the defects might be corrected at a later date. We must start with a law which is basically sound.

I hope that the Congress will reconsider this question and enact such a law early in its next session.


Harry S Truman, Memorandum of Disapproval of the National Science Foundation Bill. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232167

Simple Search of Our Archives