Because of the major scientific accomplishments of the war years, the United States emerged into the post-war era determined to consolidate its wartime gains in science and technology and to preserve the working relationship between its armed forces and the scientific community. While the Navy was establishing its Office of Naval Research (ONR) as a liaison with and supporter of basic applied scientific research, it was also encouraging NRL to broaden its scope and become, in effect, its corporate research laboratory. There was a transfer of NRL to the administrative oversight of ONR and a parallel shift of the Laboratory's research emphasis to one of long-range basic and applied investigation in a broad range of the physical sciences.

However, rapid expansion during the war had left NRL improperly structured to address long-term Navy requirements. One major task - neither easily nor rapidly accomplished - was that of reshaping and coordinating research. This was achieved by transforming a group of largely autonomous scientific divisions into a unified institution with a clear mission and a fully coordinated research program. The first attempt at reorganization vested power in an executive committee composed of all the division superintendents. This committee was impracticably large, so in 1949 a civilian director of research was named and given full authority over the program. Positions for associate directors were added in 1954.