Future Tense

How to Organize Science in an Emergency

American science was well-organized during World War II. Today’s efforts to fight COVID-19 don’t come close to measuring up.

A collage of the cover of the book 12 Seconds of Silence.
Photo illustration by Slate

This article is adapted from 12 Seconds of Silence: How a Team of Inventors, Tinkerers, and Spies Took Down a Nazi Superweapon, by Jamie Holmes, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In late 1940, three scientists in desperate need of a firing range hauled an old howitzer out to a friend’s Virginia farm. A 74-acre tract of rolling knolls and steep hills, the estate enclosed a forest, a 19th-century farmhouse, hayfields, sheepdogs, and flower gardens. The farm was big enough and it was close to Washington, D.C., and the scientists were in no mood to waste time. They set up the cannon at a 90-degree angle and fired a one-pound round vertically, thousands of feet into the sky. With the faintest of nods to safety procedures, they held thin panels above their heads—a psychological help, but flimsy shielding. They stood a hundred yards apart, listening intently for the shell’s whizzing descent.

They stood and they waited.

“Well,” their leader reasoned, “let’s shoot them straight up and they’ll come down again, and the chances of them hitting us are very small. We’ll find out what happens.” Inside the test round was an electronic part that might help shoot down airplanes.

Led by Merle Tuve, the men were working out of a Carnegie-funded research institute in the capital called the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. The newly formed National Defense Research Committee—which would become the research and development arm of the Arsenal of Democracy—had tasked them with developing the first “smart” weapon.

The project was a true long shot, and they were in a race against time. Luftwaffe bombers, flying over England with near impunity, were terrorizing London and killing thousands of people. British commanders, aiming to help the struggling Royal Air Force, had initially installed dozens of antiaircraft gun sites in and around the city. The booming guns had helped reassure residents that they were not defenseless. But as weapons, the cannons were of little worth. In the early weeks of the Blitz, the ratio of fired shells to downed aircraft was twenty thousand to one. Taking out a single German bomber took 20,000 rounds.

Figuring out how to shoot down airplanes was one of the toughest, most urgent scientific tasks of World War II.

In theory, the solution was simple. The reason that “ack-ack” guns performed so poorly against aircraft was that their shells had to either hit the targets directly or be preset to blow up after, say, either two or five seconds of flight. But if the Allies could manage to fit some kind of sensor inside an antiaircraft shell, rounds might be programed to blow up in proximity to a plane. The hope, in effect, was to produce a new kind of “intelligent” bullet.

The circuitry for such a “proximity fuse” was rudimentary. The real challenge faced by Tuve and the scientists at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism was to design electronics that could withstand the pressures inside a cannon. A space shuttle during launch does not exceed three times the force of gravity. While bombs are simply dropped, and rockets had to tolerate a hundred g’s, the pressure in an antiaircraft gun could hit 20,000 g’s.

Yet the electronics of the day, unfortunately, required the scientists to utilize delicate vacuum tubes with fine, fragile filaments. Imagine shooting a light bulb out of a pistol.

Tuve also faced an abundance of fuse options. There were a number of ways to sense an aircraft. You could try to use a plane’s shadows or its glare, and design a “photoelectric” fuse that went off with a change in light. Or you might try to design an infrared sensor to home in on an engine’s heat signature. Or you might build a listening device to explode near the sound of an airplane propeller. You could make a fuse with a little “radar ear” using radio waves. You could instead explore, as the British did, a fuse that detonated by remote control. You might even design a sensor to trigger near an airplane’s low-intensity magnetic field.

Each possibility could be a dead end, and a waste of precious time.

The puzzle Merle Tuve faced wasn’t just to build a smart fuse. It was how to sort through all the options, how to harness and coordinate brainpower, and how to avoid duplication and lost effort. It was how to organize science in an emergency against a ticking clock.

In June 1939, three months before England declared war on Germany, the U.S. Army was smaller than Portugal’s and just slightly bigger than Bulgaria’s. It was, according to one estimate, only the 19th largest army in the world. In the interwar years, skepticism that another global war was possible and a widespread isolationist attitude had left much of the American military in a state of neglect. Its equipment and weapons had grown obsolete.

Weapons development programs were outdated and poorly organized. While Army and Navy research laboratories did perform some experiments, the labs were sparsely funded and unfocused. There was very little investment in the kind of basic scientific research that explored new avenues and thus could lead to radical innovations. In 1938, the Army devoted only 1.5 percent of its budget to research. The Navy treated radar like a hobby project.

Even in aviation, American leadership did not seem to appreciate the looming threat posed by German military science. In February 1939, an engineer named Vannevar Bush had tried to warn the House of Representatives. “Germany is building better planes for military purposes than we are,” he told a Virginia congressman. “Germany has now at one station more personnel and more facilities than we have in this country for aeronautical research. They have five major stations.” Bush, vice chairman of a committee which conducted aviation experiments for the military, was seeking money to build a cutting-edge facility in California.

The funds were initially denied.

Future wars, Bush believed—as did many concerned scientists in the know—would be won in experimental labs long before military technologies reached the battlefields. As war raged in Europe, it became increasingly clear that America would be drawn into the fight, that the United States was shamefully unprepared for it, and that existing military labs could never produce the new technologies now in reach given the current state of science.

Bush, as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was Merle Tuve’s boss. He was also among the most famous scientists in the country, and one of the best connected. He was “emperor,” Time wrote, of the “biggest scientific empire under one management in the world.” In 1939 alone, Bush oversaw investigations of cosmic rays, gaseous rocks, the evolution of early humankind, and the rotation of the galaxy. His outfit was running projects in Guatemala and Indonesia. Bush himself had just returned from a romp through the Yucatán, where he and his wife were met with flowers from Gov. Humberto Canto Echeverría. Carnegie funded Mayan excavations and floated observers down the Amazon. Bush’s researchers peered into deep space to study fast-moving nebulae hundreds of millions of light years away.

Now, he envisioned a new organization of American scientists, recruited from universities and industry, to invent and produce a range of novel military weapons and gadgets.

By the spring of 1940, Bush had drafted a four-paragraph plan to marshal science to the war effort. Using his carefully tended contacts, he arranged a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt through Harry Hopkins, a former social worker and FDR’s closet aide. Two days before the Nazis occupied Paris, at 4:30 p.m. on June 12, 1940, Bush met President Roosevelt, for the first time, in the Oval Office. Roosevelt had already made up his mind. He quickly reviewed the one-page scheme, scrawled “O.K.—FDR” on Bush’s single folio, and the brief discussion was over. The entire meeting lasted less than 10 minutes.

Unusually, Bush’s National Defense Research Committee, or NDRC, would report directly to the White House and not through the customary military channels. It would also be virtually immune from congressional oversight, initially drawing its cash through the executive branch. Bush had sidestepped some messy red tape. But he still faced dire challenges.

He would need to enlist and productively organize the smartest people in the nation. Then he would have to pair them with the military’s most urgent needs, sort out the unlikely proposals from serious ones, and coordinate it all with American industry. His new committee would have to quickly redirect funds as programs failed and succeeded. Scarce resources had to be smartly distributed. Research needed to be coordinated without being micromanaged.

The public interest would have to be protected from financial motives. NDRC had to be designed, Bush later wrote, “to reconcile the need of the scientist for complete freedom with assurances that Government funds would not be improperly expended.” Patents for inventions had to be guarded to prevent “Tom, Dick, and Harry” from filing lawsuits postwar.

Bush, as historians know well, would play a central role in winning the war. As one scientist put it: “Of the men whose death in the summer of 1940 would have been the greatest calamity for America, the President is first, and Dr. Bush would be second or third.” Yet Bush’s vital contribution to World War II would not be measured in brawn. It would not even depend on his own considerable expertise and talent as an engineer.

It would be bureaucratic.

Rumors spread around Silver Spring, Maryland, of what might be truly going on inside the shaded two-story Chevrolet garage, which kept its old used cars sign out front but was now protected by armed guards and barbed wire. Groups of young, smartly dressed women arrived each morning at the Wolfe Motor Co. garage, at 8621 Georgia Avenue, and left at very odd hours—late at night, sometimes past midnight. Neighbors suspected a high-class call-girl ring. But the security guards addressed many who entered as “Doctor,” so maybe it was not a house of ill-repute after all. It could be a secret experimental medical facility.

By the summer of 1942, Merle Tuve’s smart fuse project had traded its makeshift headquarters at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, in Northwest D.C., for the new command post set amid tranquil and lightly industrial suburbs. Vaguely described on paper as the Applied Physics Laboratory, and now organized under the wing of Johns Hopkins University, Tuve’s group—Vannevar Bush dubbed them Section T—had expanded. His team of four had grown to nearly two hundred staff: physicists, engineers, ham-radio hobbyists, statisticians.

In less than a year and a half, Tuve’s motley crew had achieved the unimaginable, and seemed on the brink of a triumph. They had systematically run through the gamut of different fuse types and decided to focus on a radio sensor, which would trigger if its radio waves bounced back off an airplane. With the help of a Columbia University materials science specialist, Ray Mindlin, they had redesigned the fragile vacuum tubes to withstand 20,000 g’s.

To succeed, Tuve had relied on a small number of organizational principles that would carry him through the war and the smart fuse project. Most of Section T’s “Running Orders,” as they came to be called, emphasized speed, meritocracy of ideas, and accountability:

• “I don’t want any damn fool in this laboratory to save money, I only want him to save time.”

• “Run your bets in parallel not in series.”

• “There are no private wires from God Almighty in the lab that I know about—certainly none in my office.”

• “The primary duties of any supervisor are initiative and forethought, he is supposed to make his team do the work.”

• “The final result is the only thing that counts, and the only criteria is does it work then.”

There were no strict hierarchies at Section T: Nobody pretended to have a monopoly on good ideas. “People who could do, found themselves doing,” said Wilbur Goss, a physicist from New Mexico State University. Formal training was of secondary concern. Tuve was as likely to assign an Ivy League physics Ph.D. to a project as an amateur-radio operator from the rural South. In fact, he liked to pair Ph.D.s and radio hams together to meld different approaches.

He also recruited some remarkably brilliant staff. One of his hires, James Van Allen, would later helped birth the space age and become known as the “father of space science.” Another aide, the physicist Dick Roberts, would become a biophysicist and name the ribosome.

By habit, Tuve held people accountable. Not everyone inside the pressure cooker of Section T could handle his sharp elbows. He had “very, very few diplomatic instincts,” a co-worker said. Of all of Vannevar Bush’s top scientists, Tuve provoked the most strife. The physicist, Bush once wrote, was “very brilliant, not inclined to follow rules, and with a peculiar slant which sometimes makes him very difficult.” More than one associate called Tuve the most “dynamic” person they had ever met. One hire said he was “scared stiff of him.” He was hated and loved, admired and feared. Many named him a “driver”: He drove staff “unmercifully.”

To ensure work did not stall, Tuve built close ties with companies building fuse parts. He had little patience for any staff or industrial partners “inclined to give various alibis.”

He also relied on what could be called coordinated flexibility. Personnel were constantly being shifted. Research threads were dropped; others were quickly taken up. Workers on one team found notes on the Section T bulletin board and discovered they were now assigned to a new subproject. “This is it!—M.A. Tuve,” the notes read. Staff called them Tuve’s Monthlies. Brainpower was swiftly redirected based on bottlenecks, setbacks, or new leads.

By early 1943, Section T’s radio proximity fuse had not only been successfully produced. It had been deployed by the U.S. Navy. The following summer, their “smart” weapon would face its ultimate challenge: saving London from the German pilotless aircraft, the V-1.

A Nazi secret weapon that propagandist Joseph Goebbels dubbed “Revenge Weapon One,” the V-1 was a drone missile that sounded like a two-stroke motorcycle with strep throat. It was a 4,900-pound “robot bomb,” and no one had ever seen anything like it. At launch in Nazi-controlled France, odometers in the drones were set to target London. At their destination, the engines cut and the bombs silently drifted down to their marks. Londoners came to fear this quiet interval: twelve seconds of silence to wonder if their time had come.

V-1 explosions, a British rescue worker said, made “a bigger mess” than the bombs ever had. Their payloads were dynamic, detonating outward, leaving small, shallow craters at the centers of immense blasts. By midsummer 1944, more than 270,000 homes and other buildings had been destroyed or damaged. If that rate of destruction continued for two months, it would equal that of the nine months of the Blitz. Casualties from the V-1s quickly reached the thousands—on track to match the deadliest month of the Blitz.

Initially, England’s defense strategy focused on aircraft. But the V-1’s top speed was 408 miles per hour, which strained the capacities of the Royal Air Force. RAF pilots often had to fly above the drones and swoop down like eagles to gain enough velocity to catch them.

On July 6, Prime Minister Winston Churchill disclosed to the public that, after less than a month, the death toll from the “buzz bombs” was already approaching 3,000. “Everything in human power,” he promised, was being done to meet the threat, under the counsel of “a great number of scientists and engineers.” More British citizens had already died from V1s than were lost over the first fifteen days of the Battle of Normandy.

By mid-July, tactics were shifted, and British gun crews began a “great trek southward.” After moving the guns to the coast, Section T fuses could be fired against the drones.

Statistics tell the rest of the story. The first week the cannons were in place, the percentage of drones shot down by “ack-ack” crews rose from 9 percent to 17. Then the guns hit 24 percent. By the first week of August, practically all the heavy guns on the so-called “Diver Belt” were equipped with smart fuses, and with the help of improved radar and aiming devices, gunners grew more and more accurate. By the middle of August, the percentage of buzz bombs hit by the coastal guns had nearly doubled yet again, from 24 percent to 46 percent.

One of Tuve’s scientists in England estimated that the fuse was knocking down V-1s at the rate of 100 rounds per “bird,” a figure five or six times better than the standard fuses. Gen. Frederick Pile, head of antiaircraft command, estimated that some of his crew only needed 40 shots for each drone. By the third week of August, gunners were achieving 67 percent success against the V-1s. By the end of the month it was 79 percent.

By September, the V-1 threat was effectively ended.

As Gen. Pile later testified, in April 1946: “It was the ‘proximity fuse’ which made possible the 100 per cent successes that A.A. Command was obtaining regularly in the early months of last year. … American scientists … gave us the final answer to the flying bomb.”

Section T’s smart fuse would shorten the Pacific war, by one estimate, by a year. It would protect the port of Antwerp from V-1s, shooting down 97 percent of drones aimed at the strategically vital docks. It was also unleashed during the Battle of the Bulge, where it proved a vicious weapon against German troops. Descending over Nazi positions, as the fuses’ radio waves reflected back off the ground, shells exploded at the most lethal height.

In his own way, Vannevar Bush fought at D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, among the thousands of warships and landing craft strung along 50 miles of coastline, massive tank-landing ships with giant bow doors ferried hundreds of peculiar boats with wheels. Designed by one of Bush’s scientists, the engineer Palmer Putnam, the odd steel chariots backed off water ramps into the drink. They puttered strangely low in the sea.
The Army called them DUKWs, a tortured acronym. GIs called them “duck” boats.

They would haul 40 percent of all supplies up the beaches.

Allied ships also carried a blood substitute called serum albumin, which was developed by doctors working for Bush. Penicillin was widely available, also thanks to researchers engaged by Bush. D-Day troops carried secret “beach barrage rockets” to strike Nazi positions on the coast and soften the shoreline. They were devised by Bush’s “Section L.” His scientists developed radar jamming and navigation technology that was packed into the hulls of the invading armada. They devised a smoke machine that could protect the artificial harbors.

By the end of the war, Bush’s army of researchers—reorganized under the Office of Scientific Research and Development, or OSRD—had aided advances in radar and developed the atomic bomb and the smart fuse. They produced more than 200 new devices in total.

Six thousand of the brightest minds in the United States had contributed. Bush’s group had conducted a systematic search of all top scientific personnel within universities, government, and industry. Every Ivy League school and seemingly every top company in the nation worked together toward one goal. Already by late 1941, 52 percent of the nation’s best chemists had been recruited by OSRD. Nearly 80 percent of America’s top physicists had been.

Projects arose from the “grass roots” and were quickly funded across four key areas: armor and ordnance; chemistry and explosives; communications and transportation, and radar research. Bush and his advisors employed a pyramidal organization “with broad delegation downward, and full facility for programs to move up.” They trusted scientists to, as Bush put it “distinguish the really practical idea from the thousands of screwball proposals” floating around. Once researchers and the military agreed on a project, OSRD could approve it in a week.

Perhaps inspired by wisdom Bush had gained in business (he was a founder of Raytheon) and his personal interest in patent law, OSRD was carefully designed to prioritize Americans over American companies. Contracts ensured that any wartime scientific research would not yield a profit. The U.S. government owned any patents arising from researchers’ work. Bush later boasted that by assigning the rights to inventions to the government, he may have “personally destroyed more property in the form of patents than any other man living.”

OSRD’s main function was less to dictate research than to coordinate it. The successful search for the best drug to fight malaria, for example, involved the synthesizing of some 15,000 new chemical compounds and the joint cooperation of pharmaceutical companies, agricultural experiment stations, and university scientists. OSRD made the search systematic.

Most projects could not have been possible without establishing close relations between factories, industrial labs, academic researchers, and the U.S. military. The Manhattan Project provides a prime example of such cooperation. But OSRD’s vast contributions to the Second World War provide countless others, including that of Section T’s smart gadget.

In America, one well-organized group had thrived; in Germany, dozens of separate teams failed.

After the war, Section T learned that the Germans had perhaps 50 projects devoted to building a smart fuse, or “Abstandzünder.” But not a single project on proximity fuses for shells ever made it to production. One of Tuve’s physicists, who interviewed the German fuse scientists in 1945, concluded there had been “too little liaison between laboratory and factory and between technician and military, practically no employment of pure scientists, dispersal of effort in too many directions, dissension, distrust … and little sense that the country’s war needs were primary.” Apart from their aeronautical research, another report concluded, the Germans “failed miserably in availing themselves of their scientific manpower.”

There has never been a great global effort to mobilize science.

Since January, researchers hoping to uncover strategies to fight COVID-19 have designed a stunning 1,200 clinical trials. According to the Milken Institute, there are 198 vaccines in development (as of July 23). These efforts have their own unique dynamics. But it is striking how many of the same organizational problems that OSRD avoided afflict the ongoing crisis.

A July 6 analysis of coronavirus trials by STAT News revealed that “the effort has been marked by disorder and disorganization, with huge financial resources wasted.” Many studies are too small to yield firm conclusions; others were badly designed. Bets are being run “in parallel,” but they are being unevenly placed. STAT’s overview found, for example, that far too many trials studied chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, which have not proved effective against COVID-19. Oxford’s professor of medicine Martin Landray decried the “huge amount of wasted effort and wasted energy when actually a bit of coordination and collaboration could go a long way.” The University of Pittsburgh’s Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing, slammed U.S. leadership for failing to set a clear clinical trial agenda.* Former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf warned that “the system is off course.”

The “race” for a vaccine appears more focused. Candidates from both Moderna and the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca have shown early promise. Despite widespread doubts among scientists, Operation Warp Speed, the American vaccine push, may deliver an effective product in record time and shatter the old mark of four years. Reports that Warp Speed has been haphazardly and murkily organized may be irrelevant to the outcome. But if no vaccine succeeds, the inattention to a broad clinical trial agenda could be very costly.

Unlike wartime projects, also, the vaccine race is entangled with financial motives. While U.S. taxpayers are massively subsidizing and incentivizing COVID-19 research, a winning vaccine could earn a pharmaceutical company a windfall of more than $100 billion. The possible perverse effects of this arrangement include hyping of early results, price gouging, and data hoarding. As CNN’s Sanjay Gupta noted, “science by press release” is both unprofessional and harmful. “Never before has full and immediate transparency been so important,” Gupta wrote, “and never before has the scientific picture around Covid-19 been so opaque.”

Columnist Elisabeth Rosenthal warned that a vaccine could be “budget breaking.” According to a Texas congressman, any pledge from a pharmaceutical company to forfeit profits “should be viewed with the same skepticism as that by a used car salesperson.” By mid-July, only one of six companies to receive U.S. taxpayer funds, Novavax, had committed to a free vaccine.

Despite government officials’ comparisons of Warp Speed to the Manhattan Project, nothing Vannevar Bush oversaw resembles anything like the current “corporate-backed ‘arms race.’ ” It is far closer to Germany’s disorganized fuse efforts. It’s as if there were dozens of separate Manhattan Projects, each competing with each other for rights to sell their invention.

It can’t be assumed that companies will eagerly share secrets like manufacturing processes, medical formulas, or test data which could speed research and save lives. During World War II, manufacturers shared designs and production techniques with rivals. But today, as David Levine, associate professor of law at Elon University School of Law, wrote in STAT: “Covid-19 trade secrets could be used without regard to public health or the best interest of the world’s people.” In June, the American death toll surpassed that of World War I.

Calls for a global “Manhattan Project” to oversee coronavirus research, meanwhile, have gone unheeded. While the current piecemeal approach may not fail, its lopsidedness, spotty coordination, and general lack of financial transparency are truly unpatriotic.

During a national crisis, Vannevar Bush proved that administrative wisdom can be profoundly heroic. He and Tuve showed that in an emergency, it’s not just relying on science but the intelligent organization of science that often matters most. Both of them answered the needs of the nation and accepted accountability for its future. They depended, of course, on the support of President Roosevelt, who empowered them to begin work over a year before America entered the conflict. Without FDR’s respect for science and his confidence in Bush, the fight could have been lost. After all, as Bush once observed, there are two primary ways to lose a war, assuming equal forces: confused lines of authority; and a bad commander.

To borrow an axiom from Merle Tuve: “The trouble is always at the top.”

Correction, Aug. 4, 2020: This article originally misspelled Pittsburgh.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.