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Like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Research Council was organized in time of war. Whereas the Academy was founded in 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War, the Research Council was founded in 1916 against the backdrop of the First World War, which had consumed Europe since August 1914 and threatened to involve the United States as well. In response to growing concerns about the lack of American preparedness, internationally-minded members of the NAS tried to generate interest -- ultimately with success -- in a national organization for the coordination of scientific and technological research and development.
The need for a new organization within the NAS was felt largely on account of the NAS's relatively small size and inactivity. Although the NAS had been active for the duration of the Civil War and for some years after the cessation of hostilities, it had, throughout the latter part of the 19th century and into the first decade of the twentieth, become relatively inert. This was a situation that was not amenable to George Ellery Hale, a leading astrophysicist and Academy member since 1902. Hale wished to broaden the Academy's scope of activity, and the prospect of US participation in the war in Europe seemed to demand that it do so.
Hale, who in 1916 was in his second term as the Academy's Foreign Secretary, had been an advocate of preparedness since the beginning of the war. As early as 13 July 1915 he had written NAS President William H. Welch that the NAS was obliged to offer its services to the US government in the event of war.
As the international crisis deepened, Hale took further action. At the NAS annual meeting held in April 1916, he managed to introduce a resolution advocating the organization of the country's scientific resources. With this brief resolution, the NAS's governing body, the Council of the Academy, resolved
That the President of the Academy be requested to inform the President of the United States that in the event of a break in diplomatic relations with any other country the academy desires to place itself at the disposal of the Government for any service within its scope.
The resolution having passed unanimously, NAS President Welch on 26 April went to see U.S. President Woodrow Wilson with a group of Academy members that included Hale. The President gave oral agreement to the proposal. With that accomplished, Welch appointed from within the Academy a Committee for the Organization of the Scientific Resources of the Country for National Service. The Academy committee, which Hale chaired, was made up of some of the leading American scientists of the day: physicist Robert A. Millikan, biologist Edwin G. Conklin, medical laboratory director Simon Flexner, and physical chemist Arthur A. Noyes.
In an organizing plan presented to the Academy's governing body on 19 June, the committee called for the formation of
[A] National Research Council, the purpose of which shall be to bring into cooperation government, educational, industrial, and other research organizations with the object of encouraging the investigation of natural phenomena, and increased use of scientific research in the development of American industries, the employment of scientific methods in strengthening the national defense, and such other applications of science as will promote the national security and welfare.
The plan was approved. In July President Wilson approved it as well, thus bringing the National Research Council to life. A formal organizing meeting was held on 20 September 1916, in which Hale was made the first Chairman.
The Research Council's original membership was drawn from the government, the various branches of the military, the universities, and private research laboratories. These members were soon grouped into Divisions, each of which was organized according to discipline or function. Smaller units within the Divisions -- usually committees put together for the purpose -- undertook particular studies and projects. The Research Council was to retain this Divisional structure until 1973, when a reorganization replaced the Divisions with Assemblies and Commissions.
Although it was conceived to meet a specific emergency, the Research Council proved its value through its wartime service. Accordingly, it was made permanent by President Wilson, whose Executive Order No. 2859 of 11 May 1918 recognized the Research Council's contribution and perpetuated it as an organization.