By Rear Adm. Mat Winter, USN
This week we commemorate the 69th anniversary of a milestone not just in the history of the Navy, but in the history of science and technology in this country. On 1 August 1946, Public Law 588 established the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the first U.S. government organization dedicated to the peacetime funding of civilian science and technology research. That kind of support for science is now ubiquitous—so much so that you’re likely to know someone, perhaps who taught you chemistry in college or who works for a technology company, who’s been involved in a project that received funding from ONR, or the National Science Foundation, or any of a host of other government agencies that have provided support to scientists and engineers in the United States and around the world over the past seven decades.
So now it is hard to imagine just what a big deal it was that first summer after the end of World War II when ONR was legislated into existence. It was not just the creation of another government entity—it was the start of a new idea, that public support for science could reap wide-ranging and long-lasting benefits in peacetime. The model had proved a success during the war: the Office of Scientific Research and Development, a national organization led by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Vannevar Bush, had used the power of the purse through grants and contracts (as well as the ear of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to fund research in a dizzying array of technologies, from the development of radar to the splitting of the atom.
The Navy took the lead in creating a parallel organization that eventually would carry on this model after the war. In May 1945, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal established the Office of Research and Inventions (ORI), which combined several different wartime research offices with the Naval Research Laboratory. Vice Adm. Bowen, who had previously headed the latter organization, was made the director of the new agency. The basic outlines of ORI came from a group now known as the “Bird Dogs,” whose plan involved placing a flag officer at the head of the organization and providing two advisory committees in support, 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, which also celebrates its 69th anniversary this week).
Congressional legislation the following year transformed ORI into ONR, and gave the new agency the imprimatur and legitimacy it needed to carry on its work after the war. By the end of 1946, ONR was already funding more than 400 projects totaling more than $22 million. Today, ONR’s budget of nearly $2 billion supports research in nearly every discipline, funding basic scientific research in hundreds of universities as well as advanced technology prototypes that provide valuable experience for systems that make their way to our Navy and Marine Corps warfighters. In the intervening years, ONR has been at the forefront of helping to create the technology used by our military—from sonars to lasers to unmanned vehicles—as well as used in the everyday world—from LED televisions to graphene nanoelectronics to satellite navigation. As we look forward, ONR will continue to be the Navy’s center for innovation and a vital part of our nation’s science and technology team, helping to keep our Navy and Marine Corps always ready, always forward, and always able to fight.
Rear Adm. Winter is the Chief of Naval Research.