Abstract: “Selling the Research Idea”: The National Research Council's Promotion of Industrial Research, 1916-1945

Eric S. Hintz


The National Research Council (NRC) was founded during World War I to mobilize scientists for national defense, but one of its primary peacetime goals was the promotion of scientific research within American industries. Thus, following the armistice, the NRC embarked on a thoroughgoing campaign to "sell the research idea"—employing magazine articles, radio talks, and popular lectures to demonstrate the benefits of industrial research to the general public, while specifically targeting executives through its divisional meetings, how-to books, and highly publicized tours of the nation's R&D labs. Overall, the campaign was a spectacular success, as the number of American industrial laboratories increased nearly eight-fold from 297 labs in 1920 to 2,264 labs in 1940. Lacking funds following the Great Depression and convinced that it had fully achieved its goals, the NRC spun out its promotional activities in 1945 and formed the non-profit Industrial Research Institute (IRI), which remains today's leading R&D trade association. Based on archival research conducted at the National Academy of Sciences, this paper describes how the NRC and IRI not only raised awareness of industrial research, but also helped develop new knowledge and best practices for managing research within a corporate setting.