President Biden has announced a “full-scale wartime effort” to vaccinate the American people against the coronavirus. This is hardly the first time our struggle against the pandemic has been likened to warfare. Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership that helped spur the invention of two COVID-19 vaccines last year, has often been compared to the government’s programs during World War II to mobilize scientific knowledge to accomplish awesome technological feats in short order.
Such comparisons lend support to an increasingly popular notion in Washington: that what we need are more Manhattan Projects—more Operation Warp Speeds—to address our most pressing challenges. If, with enough federal money and direction, we were able to invent the bomb in just three years, or a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, why couldn’t we do the same for every other major societal problem?
To answer that question, we should take a closer look at these government programs—and what it was that made them successful.
In both cases, the government utilized science—and spent lots of money—to solve urgent, practical problems by developing and deploying new technologies. And, while they served the broader aim of neutralizing large-scale threats, these programs all had discrete, technical objectives (e.g., building a nuclear weapon or radar system or mRNA vaccine). Both the vaccine push and its wartime predecessors were also international efforts that required governmental and non-governmental actors to work together, blending military, scientific, and industrial leadership. Gen. Gustave F. Perna, the four-star general in charge of logistics for Operation Warp Speed, was reportedly inspired by “Freedom’s Forge,” a book chronicling the successful collaboration between the U.S. military and American industry during World War II.
There are some notable differences between now and the 1940s. The government’s role in the race to develop a vaccine was a lot smaller than the scientific effort during World War II. Pfizer—an American corporation that partnered with a small German firm, BioNTech, to develop the vaccine—declined to accept any government funds or assistance during research and trials (although Pfizer did sign a $1.95 billion advanced-purchase agreement). Moderna worked more closely with the government, welcoming both federal funds and personnel. This arrangement is somewhat akin to World War II’s lesser-known (though arguably more significant) radar program, which was funded by the government but housed at M.I.T. under civilian leadership. Yet, overall, Operation Warp Speed involved significantly less federal direction and less federal funding than the government’s vast array of research programs during World War II. (The cost of M.I.T’s “Rad Lab” alone exceeded that of Operation Warp Speed.)
Organizational differences aside, the government’s efforts during both crises offer impressive examples of large-scale directed research. So why couldn’t the government just do the same thing after the pandemic to solve other large-scale problems? To answer that, we should consider another—less remarked on—similarity between Operation Warp Speed and the government’s wartime research.
Neither the race to invent COVID-19 vaccines nor the push to develop nuclear weapons, radar systems, and computing devices took place in a scientific vacuum. In fact, World War II came on the heels of what historians calls the Second Scientific Revolution—the most momentous advance in science since the 17th century. The roughly hundred-year period spanning the mid-19th century until the start of World War II witnessed an astonishing array of scientific discoveries, many of which spurred (and continue to spur) technological inventions. These included, to name only a few associated with World War II: radio waves (the basis of radio and radar), binary logic (the basis of modern computing), modern statistics and probability (used in radar detection systems), and, of course, atomic and nuclear physics, without which there could have been no bomb.
Although many of these discoveries turned out to be technologically useful, most were not driven by utilitarian goals. That is not to say that the scientists and mathematicians who made them were totally unaware of potential applications or that technology played no role. Science and technology feed back on each other. But, generally speaking, the men and women who made these discoveries—George Boole, Andrey Kolmogorov, Heinrich Hertz, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Otto Hahn, Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner (to name only a few)—were not intending to invent anything, much less the particular inventions their discoveries later enabled. They were trying to advance our understanding of nature.
Similarly, the medical breakthroughs that led to the COVID-19 vaccines were possible—and possible on such a short time scale—in part because of scientific discoveries made decades before. In fact, while mRNA vaccines are relatively new, the discovery of mRNA came almost exactly half a century earlier—and had little to do with medical technology. By the middle of the last century, enormous progress was underway in the life sciences, especially in the burgeoning field of molecular genetics, spurred by Watson and Crick’s famous discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. This was the beginning of a revolution in the life sciences comparable in significance to that which took place in the physical sciences in the decades leading up to World War II.
During this period, scientists were also beginning to understand RNA, a molecule similar in structure to DNA that is also essential to life. In the late 1950s, biologists around the world—including Crick and Syndney Brenner in England, Jacques Monod and François Jacob in France, and Lazarus Astrachan and Elliot Volkin in the United States—independently discovered a special type of RNA that came to be called “messenger RNA.” mRNA is a short-lived molecule that couriers genetic information from DNA to the cytoplasm in the cell, where the ribosome uses the information to produce proteins, an essential biological process. (mRNA vaccines encode genetic information in synthetic mRNA fragments that tells the body how to develop an immune response.)
Without these scientific advances a half century ago, researchers today could not have used mRNA to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Yet, the discovery of mRNA—and many of the discoveries on which it depended—were not driven by the exigency of a pandemic or any other practical needs. The scientists involved surely knew of the potential for medical applications. (Many of the key scientific insights about RNA during the 1950s came from experimental work on bacteria, including E. coli.) But Monod, Jacob, Brenner, Crick, Astrachan, Volkin, and their colleagues were not looking to invent a vaccine or anything else when they made their foundational discoveries. Rather, like Hertz, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Hahn, and Meitner, they were trying to advance our understanding of nature.
What lessons might this history offer for policymakers today? What enabled the rapid invention of COVID-19 vaccines and the atom bomb, radar, and computing devices was not simply federal money and direction—or even private-sector ingenuity, risk-taking, and technological know-how. These were all necessary. But they would have been insufficient were it not for scientific discoveries made long before. Some of the research that led to these discoveries was supported by government, either directly or indirectly. But it was not steered toward solving practical problems—much less the particular problems these discoveries later helped us solve through their application to wartime and medical technologies.
History shows that in moments of crisis, the government can, when working cooperatively with the private sector, act swiftly and effectively to spur technological innovation. Operation Warp Speed and the government’s research programs during World War II offer different models for how to do so. What the government cannot do is order up the scientific knowledge needed for such innovation on demand. Scientific discoveries take time and are difficult, if not impossible, to plan. This is not to discount the role of government in science. Besides the active role it plays directing research during crises, the government can and should play a role in science during ordinary times—especially by funding undirected research.
Without prior advances in basic science, the U.S. government would not have been able to spur the invention of technologies that helped us win World War II and will help us win the war against COVID-19. To prepare for the next large-scale threat, policymakers should prioritize funding basic science.