The Office of Naval Research was established by act of Congress, Public Law 588, in August 1946 as the U.S. government’s first permanent military agency devoted to funding civilian scientific research during peacetime. This guide is meant as an introduction for researchers seeking public documents and records about ONR, its activities, and the science and technology research that it funds and manages.
The Office of Naval Research
ONR manages and funds basic and applied science and advanced technology development through the use of grants and contracts with an array of partners in academia, industry, and government in the United States and around the world. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, is a subordinate command. ONR also works in close cooperation with the Navy’s systems commands and their warfare centers located across the United States, as well as with the other services. As a major supporter of scientific research since World War II, ONR has had a role in fostering scientific and technological innovations in a wide range of fields, as well as in maintaining the basic scientific research infrastructure that makes these breakthroughs possible. Consequently, historical research on ONR can illuminate discourses in the history of public and science policy, the relationship between government and academia, naval technology, and the military-industrial complex, as well as of individual disciplines such as oceanography, biology, robotics, physics, and numerous other fields.
Born in the aftermath of World War II, ONR was established by congressional legislation in 1946 to maintain the successful partnership of government, academia, and industry that had produced a series of technological innovations during the war. This template originated with ONR’s immediate predecessor, the Navy’s Office of Research and Inventions, created by order of the Secretary of the Navy in May 1945, and more broadly with the Office of Scientific Research and Development, a national wartime agency. Originally focused on basic science research using contracts, grants were added as a funding tool in 1959. Funding for applied research began in 1980 with the establishment of the Office of Naval Technology, an organization also headed by the Chief of Naval Research. In 1990, the Office of Advanced Technology was established to focus on advanced technology development. All three organizations were formally joined together as a single entity in 1993.
Originally located in Washington, DC, in the old Navy Department buildings on the National Mall, ONR is now located in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, VA. The Office of Naval Research is managed by the Chief of Naval Research, a naval flag officer; the Vice Chief of Naval Research, a marine general officer; and the Executive Director, a Senior Executive Service civilian. The research activities of ONR, as well as the organizational structures put in place to manage them, have varied greatly over the agency’s lifetime. In general, however, ONR’s portfolio of research investments has been divided into a series of science and technology programs overseen and managed by program officers. In addition, over the years ONR also has been responsible for managing a number of significant tasks for the Department of the Navy, including the Navy’s patent office, the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research office, and the Navy’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education outreach office. Besides the Naval Research Laboratory, ONR’s other major partner laboratories have included the Special Devices Center (created in World War II and later a component of Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division) until the early 1960s, and the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, from 1947-1980.
Other components of ONR include ONR Global, which has offices in Santiago, Chile; São Paulo, Brazil; London, United Kingdom; Prague, Czech Republic; Singapore; and Tokyo, Japan. Founded in 1946 with a single office in London, ONR Global’s personnel interact with the international science and technology community and overseas operational commands to foster cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
The Naval Research Advisory Committee, also established by Public Law 588, was an independent civilian scientific advisory group dedicated to providing objective analyses in the areas of science, research, and development. The committee was the senior scientific advisory group to the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Chief of Naval Research. It produced one or more reports a year on topics of interest to the Navy and Marine Corps. In its early days, the committee’s purview was quite broad, dealing with early atomic energy policy for instance. The committee was disestablished in 2019.
The ONR Historian
The current office of the historian was created in 2013. The historian provides the command with professional guidance in the field of history and historic preservation, and the public with an extensive program of outreach that includes oral history, research, publications, and multimedia materials. For help with research requests, please contact the historian at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-696-5031.
The list below of secondary sources, dissertations, and primary sources contained in archives and libraries related to ONR should not be considered comprehensive and cannot attempt to document the voluminous amounts of scientific and technological research supported by ONR. It emphasizes resources that document the history of ONR as an organization and its major supported projects, and is intended to provide an overview of the kinds of resources available to researchers and others seeking to find publicly accessible documents and information about the Office of Naval Research, its research activities, and its relationship with the development of science and technology in the United States and the world since World War II.