We are working through the idea that faculty independence is an important element in the justification to push federal funding for research activities to universities. For Vannevar Bush, the idea was that the frontiers of science were best explored by the “free play of free intellects.” Bush’s idea proved to be a difficult concept for administrators, managers, bureaucrats, and policy-makers to grasp. Bush argued that mission-directed research, important as it is, was constrained by the needs, expectations, and readiness to support of the organizations that controlled that research, whether corporations or government. While scientific frontiers might be expanded by such research, Bush argued that merely making more of such mission-directed work did not adequately get at the range of the unknown frontiers. Something else was needed–“free play of free intellects” was Bush’s attempt to capture this something else.
The idea of “play” operates in a number of ways. “Play” is inherently opposed to directed work, or at least work directed by others. Play is distinct from “work”–even though one might work–exercise, think–to play well. Play follows its own directions and pacing. Combine play and intellect and, Bush argues, you have prepared the ground for insights that expand the frontiers of science rather than plat out new townships in spaces already opened up.
The problem Bush faced was how to link of government-scale resources with this idea of “free play of free intellects.” Continue reading