Was Vannevar Bush So Wrong?

Over at Science of Science Policy there’s more discussion of Vannevar Bush, this time attributing to Bush the “linear model” of innovation that asserts that basic research leads to discoveries that applied research then prepares for development into commercial products, and that boys and girls is how everything good in society comes into being. If it weren’t for companies making products, you wouldn’t even be able to take a dump. You’d be a helpless mass of of blubbering jelly.

Of course, Bush doesn’t state a linear model of innovation in Science the Endless Frontier, and isn’t the origin of it. He’s the totem for it. Here’s what I posted at Scisip:

Why is it that recent efforts to “save science” try to pin the problem on Vannevar Bush? I have no love for the “linear” model of innovation. But (as Benoît Godin has pointed out) it’s not in Science the Endless Frontier. Why not pin the problems on the policy wonks, administrators, and lawyers who ignored Bush and created yet more institutional science and institutional management, with their grandiose projects and contracting mediocrities–just what Bush worried (in Modern Arms and Free Men) could happen? Why not pin the problem on institutional processes, on the domination of the concept of the research “project” as something reviewable in advance, as carrying the “merit” (as Charles Kidd worried, back in the late 1950s)? Why not pin the problem on the goofy distinction between “basic” and “applied” as forms of research rather than outcomes of an endeavor?

Vannever Bush’s problem to solve was how to use institutional resources (federal government funding) to create environments suited expressly to the discovery of new scientific knowledge and training for people who could work at the frontiers of science. How to advance science outside the institutional controls of science? How to position science so that we could create new industries that might render institutionally defined problems obsolete? Bush argued that environments free from corporate controls and government controls had the best chance to succeed in the expansion of scientific frontiers. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the frontier of science is not endless. Maybe there is no such thing as a scientific frontier. Maybe institutions are the future of science. Maybe sucking up to institutional power is the future of science policy.

But Bush was not idly constructing a policy model for science. He had lived the effort to develop new technology, under time pressure, and with with lives on the line. He recognized the role of having available new scientific knowledge that could be drawn on at need. He saw how institutional interests could not assemble new ideas that broke the paths the institutions had chosen to follow. He saw the competitive advantage in the combination of new science and technological capability running outside institutional controls. His problem was how to foster such environments using federal money.

Bush’s experience ought to count for something–if nothing else, a careful read rather than caricature of his works. Certainly Bush did not get what he proposed–multiple federal agencies rushed to create their own “basic” research programs and university administrators and faculty advocated against concentrating federal funding for “basic” research in any one federal agency–and especially not in one that proposed that the “free play of free intellects” might come to something.

The discussion I see developing is one that flatters institutions with the idea that if they change their control of research, they will get results more to their liking. That may be a discussion worth having, especially if one is embedded in an institution and has a career that depends on institutional interest, but it wasn’t the discussion Bush aimed to have about science. Here’s his proposition:

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

Was Vannevar Bush so wrong?

The discussion at Scisip draws attention to a new book on “innovation cycles” (Cycles of Invention and Discovery: Rethinking the Endless Frontier) that depends on debunking the distinction between basic and applied research–a distinction also pinned (wrongly) on Vannevar Bush. My thought is that folks would do well to re-read Science the Endless Frontier–a few times–and think it before they get about to re-thinking it.


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