Organizing Crisis Innovation: Lessons from World War II
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.
We thank Ashish Arora, Pierre Azoulay, Wes Cohen, Scott Stern, and participants at the 2020 NBER Summer Institute for comments. We also thank Harvard Business School and the NBER Innovation Policy grant (2016) for financial support. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1951470. All errors are our own. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.