By Walter F. Jones, Ph.D
August 1, 1946, is an important day in U.S. Navy and Marine Corps history for reasons that have little to do with battles, the speeches of admirals or generals, or even ships. On that day, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Law 588, an act establishing the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Born in the aftermath of war, a child of history’s most science-dominated conflict, ONR would in time help give birth to a host of progeny that together would redefine how American science is conducted in peacetime.
ONR was founded with the mission “to plan, foster, and encourage scientific research in recognition of its paramount importance as related to the maintenance of future naval power, and the preservation of national security.” Congress placed an official stamp on ONR’s model for research with these words, but the model had already been developed during the war by a group of young naval officers known to us today as the “Bird Dogs.” These ensigns and lieutenants saw that traditional naval-led research and development could be enhanced by partnerships with civilian researchers. Collaboration at every level of the research process became the centerpiece of the ONR approach.
It did not take long to see how influential the new organization could be. By 1949, ONR contracts (the power to provide grants came later) accounted for nearly 40 percent of the country’s total basic science spending, turning the upstart agency into what historian Harvey Sapolsky has called the “Office of National Research.” ONR’s share of that research has declined in relative terms over the decades as other organizations founded on similar principles have arisen—such as the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Army Research Office—but ONR’s importance to the nation and the Navy and Marine Corps remains stronger than ever.
Despite changes in attitude toward government brought about by FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and the massive federal support of science during World War II, creating a public organization that funds basic research in peacetime was still a novel idea in 1946. The military services had been conducting their own research for decades—but ONR was created to support civilian scientists whose research, in practice, only needed the potential to help the Navy and Marine Corps. The hallmark of ONR’s funding of science has always been its dual commitment to providing Sailors and Marines with innovative technologies while giving researchers the support they need even when outcomes don’t produce immediate results.
This novel approach to funding science was a decisive break from the past. And it has proved decisive over the last seven decades in making ONR and its peer organizations relevant not only to helping warfighters do their jobs better, but also to making the United States the leader in science and technology that it is today.
In those nearly 70 years, ONR has had a hand in the discovery, invention, and transition of things you might naturally associate with naval science, such as lighter and stronger steel for ships, longer range sonar for submarines, more efficient wing designs for aircraft, and the introduction of rail guns and lasers on naval vessels. But ONR also provided some of the earliest funding for research in artificial intelligence, modern computers, and the first programming languages. It supported basic research in solid-state electronics that eventually led to the first LED televisions. And it has long supported research that has brought us the first manned descent to the deepest depths of the sea and greatly improved our understanding of the global ocean environment. The list of things we depend on and that matter to all of us is long.
Sixty-eight years and counting, the Office of Naval Research continues to support and develop today’s Navy and Marine Corps and the fleet and force of the future.
Dr. Jones is the Executive Director of the Office of Naval Research.