ACHRE Report


The Atomic Century

Before the Atomic Age: "Shadow Pictures," Radioisotopes, and the Beginnings of Human Radiation Experimentation

The Manhattan Project: A New and Secret World of Human Experimentation

The Atomic Energy Commission and Postwar Biomedical Radiation Research

The Transformation in Government - Sponsored Research

The Aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Emergence of the Cold War Radiation Research Bureaucracy

New Ethical Questions for Medical Researchers


The Basics of Radiation Science

What Is Ionizing Radiation?

What Is Radioactivity?

What Are Atomic Number and Atomic Weight?

Radioisotopes: What Are They and How Are They Made?

How Does Radiation Affect Humans?

How Do We Measure the Biological Effects of External Radiation?

How Do We Measure the Biological Effects of Internal Emitters?

How Do Scientists Determine the Long-Term Risks from Radiation?

The Transformation in Government - Sponsored Research

The AEC's decision to proceed with a biomedical research program was part of an even greater transformation, in which government continued and expanded wartime support for research in industry and at universities. Before World War II, biomedical research was a small enterprise in which the federal government played a minor role. During the war, however, large numbers of American biomedical researchers were mobilized by the armed forces. These researchers played an important role in advancing military medicine in a wide range of areas, including blood substitutes, antimalarial drugs and, as noted above, in nurturing the infant science of nuclear medicine.

As the war was drawing to a close, President Roosevelt asked for advice from his Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) on how to convert the nation's military research effort to a peacetime footing, and whether the government should take an activist role in promoting research. The OSRD, under Vannevar Bush, responded in July 1945, after Roosevelt's death, with a report called "Science, the Endless Frontier." Bush and his colleagues recommended among other things the establishment of a National Science Foundation (NSF) to support basic research in all areas including the biomedical sciences. While the principle that the federal government should fund medical research came to seem self-evident, this was hardly the case at the time. In a personal reminiscence published in 1970, Bush wrote:

To persuade the Congress of these pragmatically inclined United States to establish a strong organization to support fundamental research would seem to be one of the minor miracles. We in this country have supported well those pioneers who have created new gadgetry for our use or our amusement. But we have not had during our formative years the respect for scientific endeavors, for scholarship generally, to the extent it had been present in Europe.[51]

Congress worked Bush's small miracle and passed relevant legislation, but President Harry Truman vetoed the bill. When the bill passed again, however, Bush persuaded Truman to sign it.[52]

At the new AEC, and elsewhere, a key element of the support for science was the determination to fund extramural research, that is, research outside the agency. Prior to the war, federal support for private researchers was limited. The Manhattan Project was only one of several wartime efforts that drew private researchers into government service and that provided federal funds for those who remained in private research centers. Following the war, as researchers returned to universities, laboratories, and hospitals, the continued federal support of their efforts transformed the relationship between government and science and the dimensions of the scientific effort.[53]

During the war, the Committee on Medical Research (CMR) of the OSRD operated entirely by funding external research. In 1944, Congress empowered the surgeon general of the Public Health Service to make grants to universities, hospitals, laboratories, and individuals, which provided the legislative basis for the postwar National Institute of Health (NIH) extramural program.[54] In 1948, Congress authorized the National Heart Institute to join the decade-old National Cancer Institute, and NIH became the National Institutes of Health.

By the late 1960s, the annual appropriations of NIH exceeded $1 billion.[55] Research involving medical uses of radioisotopes and external radiation was among the newer fields benefiting from the increased funding. As discussed in more detail in chapter 6, government-supported radioisotope research has proved profoundly important in the development of techniques for medical diagnosis and treatment.

Federal research funding has also continued to be essential to the development of the use of external sources of radiation. For example, the crude images made possible by Roentgen's discovery of x rays have been replaced by higher resolution, three-dimensional pictures, such as those produced by computerized tomographic (CT) scanning and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Today, the benefits of federally sponsored medical research are often taken for granted. To many of those in the midst of the postwar planning and advocacy, however, the result was not foreordained. "Fortunately," Shields Warren recalled years later, postwar "momentum" kept AEC research budgets on track until, in 1957, the Soviet launch of Sputnik (the first space satellite) jolted the American people into a renewed commitment to the support of scientific research.[56]

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