Organizing Crisis Innovation: Lessons from World War II

46 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2020

See all articles by Daniel P. Gross

Daniel P. Gross

Duke University - Fuqua School of Business; National Bureau of Economic Research

Bhaven N. Sampat

Columbia University - Mailman School of Public Health

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: October 8, 2020

Abstract

World War II was one of the most acute emergencies in U.S. history, and the first where the mobilization of science and technology was a major part of the government response. The U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) led a major research effort to develop technologies and medical treatments that not only helped win the war, but also transformed civilian life, while laying the foundation for postwar science policy. Scholars and policymakers often make broad appeals to the World War II innovation model in other crises. In this essay we describe exactly how it worked. We do so first through a general overview of how OSRD approached several questions that may confront any crisis innovation effort: priority setting, selecting and engaging researchers, a funding mechanism, coordinating research efforts, and translation to practice. Next we present case studies of the radar, atomic fission, penicillin, and malaria research programs, illustrating how the principles applied in specific contexts, but also heterogeneity. We conclude by discussing lessons from OSRD, such as what makes crisis innovation policy different, how crisis innovation policy approaches may vary, and the limits to generalizing from World War II for contemporary crises.

Keywords: World War II, Office of Scientific Research & Development, National Defense Research Committee, Committee on Medical Research, Radar, Manhattan Project, Penicillin, Malaria, Vannevar Bush, Innovation, Science policy

JEL Classification: H12, H56, N42, N72, O31, O32, O38

Suggested Citation

Gross, Daniel P. and Sampat, Bhaven N., Organizing Crisis Innovation: Lessons from World War II (October 8, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3701812 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3701812

Daniel P. Gross (Contact Author)

Duke University - Fuqua School of Business ( email )

Box 90120
Durham, NC 27708-0120
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research ( email )

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Cambridge, MA 02138
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Bhaven N. Sampat

Columbia University - Mailman School of Public Health ( email )

600 West 168th St. 6th Floor
New York, NY 10032
United States

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