The beating of Vannevar Bush will continue until productivity improves

Apparently it is popular in science policy to think that Vannevar Bush failed to have insights worth pursuing when it comes to science policy. Dan Sarewitz calls him a liar. Venkatesh Narayahnamurti and Toluwalogo Odumosu blame him for a distinction between “basic” and “applied” research, which they then demolish in favor of (I guess) “transdisciplinary” teams. Jeffrey Tasao off-handedly accuses Bush of being the originator of the idea of the goofy “linear model” of innovation. And James Holbrook asserts that Bush was “wrong to argue that the free play of free intellects is necessary to produce societal results.”

Well now. That’s quite a load. No doubt Vannevar Bush made mistakes, but let’s at least make the effort to frame what he did write and what he didn’t before we blame him for our problems. Bush didn’t devise the linear model. He didn’t formalize a dichotomy between basic and applied research. And there’s no evidence he was a liar about all this. There is evidence, however, that he valued technology development, and recognized that some of that technology development thrived when it was aided by new findings of science, and that those new findings of science came about without demands made by institutions.

Bush was asked by President Roosevelt to propose how the use of science during World War 2 might be adapted to civilian work. Roosevelt specifically asks about how things might work in medicine. Bush writes Science the Endless Frontier, drawing on a number of reports and recommendations by committees looking at the various issues. A primary concern is how the federal government becomes involved in research. Bush picks up from a phrase that closes President Roosevelt’s request:

New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.

That’s the premise for both the study and the metaphor that frames the report. The frontiers of science are in the mind, new ways of thinking about the world that allow us to change our conditions of living. The fundamental challenge is what does it take to do that–to explore “new frontiers of the mind.” And more particularly, how to motivate such exploration through the supply of federal funding? 

In response, Bush makes a case for some research to aim to expand the frontiers of science.

Progress in the war against disease depends upon a flow of new scientific knowledge. New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes.

The comparison is with science used in war to gain an advantage in thinking about practical issues, like how to detect in-coming bombers or how to anticipate where such bombers might be if they are flying in quasi-random paths as they near their targets. The conventional thinking does not provide satisfactory solutions. Drawing on science produces radar and monte carlo modeling.

How might such results be produced in medicine and other areas of civic life? Bush argues that there ought to be two components. One component follows the conventional format in which federal agencies fund studies that advance their mission objectives–often near-term and mid-term matters where a result can be useful. The other component, however, values freedom of inquiry, to search where no one would direct one to search:

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. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science . . . .

Bush argues three factors have led to societal benefit in the U.S.:

the free play of initiative of a vigorous people under democracy, the heritage of great national wealth, and the advance of science and its application.


Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war.But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.

Now this may all be ideology–free markets, democracy, wealth, and science. And folks can doubt it and denounce it as they will. But let’s work with the account, and get to know it, before tossing it as the work of a useless, wrong-headed old liar.

Consider how Bush develops the argument for advances in medicine:

The primary place for medical research is in the medical schools and universities. In some cases coordinated direct attack on special problems may be made by teams of investigators, supplementing similar attacks carried on by the Army, Navy, Public Health Service, and other organizations.

There’s the practical effort to solve pressing problems. The government can fund such stuff, too. That isn’t what Roosevelt asked him to address. Roosevelt wants to know how to adapt what Bush had directed to civilian benefit. Here’s what Bush is concerned about:

Apart from teaching, however, the primary obligation of the medical schools and universities is to continue the traditional function of such institutions, namely, to provide the individual worker with an opportunity for free, untrammeled study of nature, in the directions and by the methods suggested by his interests, curiosity, and imagination.

Bush argues that federal funding should not merely “mobilize” the talent in universities to attack special problems, no matter how pressing. There needs also to be, especially at universities, research that is not directed by outside agencies, but is supported by resources at the scale the federal government can provide. Universities should not adapt to conform to what government wants; government should want universities to keep doing what they are already doing, just with better funding to advance work more quickly in more directions.

The history of medical science teaches clearly the supreme importance of affording the prepared mind complete freedom for the exercise of initiative. It is the special province of the medical schools and universities to foster medical research in this way – a duty which cannot be shifted to government agencies, industrial organizations, or to any other institutions.

Consider the problem: what shall we study to advance public health? One approach is to identify problems and put people onto the “solving” those problems. But as they force their way toward a solution, especially with pressure to produce sooner rather than later, they draw on the tools of study they know well, that have been established. To get funded at all, they have to provide a plausible account of how they will attack the problem, what the solution might look like. They cannot write, “A miracle will occur” or “By studying something entirely off-topic, we will come to a sudden realization” or “Adopting unproven and little respected approaches we will accomplish what the leaders in the field also attempt using the best practices available.” Bush argues that we also need to fund the development of new ideas, new tools, new ways of thinking about and observing the world. It is not that the study of distant galaxies will help us better manage our own galaxy, or that we will then be able to commercialize products for an emerging market in galaxies, but rather that by working to detect faint light (and other forms of radiation), we will devise detection instrumentation and observe atmospheric disturbances and ideas about matter that may indeed become available for practical work in other areas of endeavor.

Consider then a variant question, how shall we study health and medicine? One way is to direct the research. This is the approach that science policy experts cited above appear to favor–institutional science is preferred, and within institutional science the important thing is to get the policy right. The “free play” idea for these folks is wrong. What, then, decides what we should tell scientists to study?

Bush’s argument is that it is necessary for the federal government to provide funds that preserve the freedom of inquiry, that do not come with a requirement that the investigator serve the interests of the federal agency. Bush argues for the preservation of “fostering” an environment in which individuals choose their direction. If not individuals, then who? Committees? Other individuals who know more and better? Business owners? Generals? Policies themselves, sort of like sacred texts written by gods?

Or should “the public” decide what we want from science? Isn’t that just another argument in favor of those who come to “represent” the public? And won’t that end up being the research directors at federal agencies, and the most influential folks on the committees (none of them elected) that advise the research directors? Or maybe celebrities and sports heros who advocate for some cause, or lobbying groups. Or shall we take a public vote? And who decides what is on the ballot for us to choose from?  Ah, the same advisors to whoever has to decide what’s on that ballot. No–it will have to be a write-in campaign. And even then, how can we imagine what someone who has trained to see through the consensus explanations, the side-stepping of bothersome details, the lack of support for grandiose theories, the prospect of something new–how do we tell that person what to study? “Cure disease!” “Find a cheap source of reliable energy that isn’t oil or coal or hydro or nuclear!”

We may as well demand that folks “pick better lottery tickets” so that we can win the lottery and become wealthy. You see the problem? Who other than individuals with expertise know what they ought to study, if we want to expand the frontiers of science? If we already know so much that we expect others to obey us, then we aren’t expanding any new frontiers–we are exploiting what has become sufficiently common that we already know it, or think we know it.

Thus, to expand the frontiers of our thinking, we are at a loss to find institutional tools to direct that thinking. “Think differently than we ever have–and do it now! and make it useful! and cure cancer, too!–or we won’t fund you at all!” For the effort to expand the frontiers of our thinking, Bush argues that we work best by letting people with training do their own thinking. You don’t tell the scout what to scout–the scout decides. The scout has training, integrity, recognizes that others depend on good scouting. How does one assign metrics to such scouting, productivity measures, indicia of influence and excellence? Same for the scientist working at the frontiers of his or her own thoughts and observations–what to think, what to observe, what to focus on, what to chase down–things without names, without properties, not even gaps, maybe hiding in accepted explanations that are overbroad or just wrong.

Isn’t there something there? Bush does not argue all science proceeds in this manner, but he does argue that without free play of free intellects, the federal government will not produce the desired results that it seeks from science. That’s the premise. One might argue that science arises from technology and not the other way around. But that’s not contrary to Bush. Bush does not argue that the frontiers of science arise only from theoretical puffery. Of course there is experiment, and of course experiment may involve technology, and of course the technology itself may enable experiment and observation and the abandonment of theory, even consensus theory. What matters is that there is freedom of inquiry.

The moment the state, or any institution–meaning, people speaking for the state, or for an institution–dictate what can be studied, and how, then we are back around to having demagogues and managers decide. Perhaps they spin wheels. But who writes the directions on the wheel before it’s spun? Perhaps they know more than anyone else. How have they come to know so well what those with training in observing and testing and evaluating haven’t come to? Shall we just assume what we know naturally is all we need? That’s hardly satisfying from the point of view of history. Even the folks that claim technology leads science don’t say we already know everything by imagining that we know everything. We acknowledge that things happen in the world beyond our imagining. The world may not be endless, but perhaps science–our thinking about how we apprehend the world–may well be endless.

Bush argues that we need both directed work and free initiative to advance science. I don’t see that argument to be either a lie or obviously wrong-headed. Even Paul Feyerabend, that critic of academic freedom, argues that “anything goes” in science and that institutionalized methods don’t provide a better outcome than all sorts of strangeness. But for Feyerabend, academic freedom means disinterest and disengagement in responsibilities to society. Bush is not arguing escape to an ivory tower. He is arguing rather that science benefits from two sorts of activity if it is to be supported by significant institutional resources. One sort of activity is practical–figure out how to do something that’s desired. Build a better mousetrap or whatever. The other sort of activity is also practical, but it is not directed. It follows personal initiative, not what the public demands, not what consensus says is credible, not what a majority want, not the most trendy, worthy, pressing contexts, whether to save lives or make money or cause huge euphorias. That sort of activity explores what it chooses to explore, knowing that exploration that finds out new things also matters.

We are not talking “exploration for exploration’s sake”–nor “science for science’s sake.” Bush does not discuss “pure science.” Bush is not talking about separating science from technology or putting science before technology. Bush does talk about “basic science.” What he means is science conducted without a pressing demand that science be applied. It is akin to working on one’s technique rather than only playing the game or instrument. Deliberative practice–but here, not simply to obey, but to practice something that hasn’t been played before, to explore that. Call it the Riejseger approach to the cello. One is never ready. Institutions never are, either.

The problem with science policy–and with our discussions of patent management for research–is that we end up devising new ways for institutions to dictate what we want and what we can do. Freedom works against such schemes. It looks all wrong to weaken a scheme, to make things more uncertain. That way, the fear goes, lies fraud and corruption, laziness and waste. Yes, of course, if those involved lack integrity. Of course. But that way also lies the unknown, the unimagined, the unpracticed–the frontiers of science. And it’s hard to fathom that someone would argue that institutional science does not also invite fraud, corruption, laziness, and waste.

One might argue that when scientists allow themselves to be directed by institutions–for the money or the reputation–they give themselves an excuse to be stupid, unproductive, and dull. All that matters is that they present their work in authoritative, nicely formatted, perhaps even sophisticated packages that flatter those providing the direction. Rules carry with them perverse incentives. Remove the rules and one either has anarchy or integrity. When Aeneas meets Latinus on the shores of Ausonia, Latinus argues that the inhabitants are “unfettered by laws.” They have sufficient integrity not to need an external scaffolding of rules. Of course, that’s just a big fiction. But it carries a point. If the intellect is free, then we see its character in its choices and actions. If there’s laziness, it comes to light. If there are rules and direction, then laziness may remain hidden for so long as someone can flatter the system and the system itself is too vain or slow or incompetent or broken to respond.

One can get to scientific frontiers from within institutions, too, no doubt. The question Bush addresses is whether there is also room for non-institutional direction, but with institutional-scale resources, with government resources. His answer was that the freedom of inquiry in universities is important, is distinctive. That universities–as he characterized them–foster such freedom of inquiry. Not separation from society, not indifferent, but free to choose. One does not have to be compelled to be responsive. One doesn’t have to obey, to comply, in order to recognize value. One does not have to make a show of trying to cure cancer to come up with an understanding that contributes to the thinking about such a cure. One does not have to even study cancer to make such a contribution. Rather, one extends the frontiers of science, of the mind, of what we are conditioned to observe and expect, and that extension is made sufficiently well known that it may be used at need, who knows what for.

Of course, universities have their own institutional fussinesses, and federal funding has changed those fussinesses to be their own special brand of controls, involving tenure and promotion, access to resources, and measures of “productivity” so that the “excellence” and “reputation” of the institution will permit others to compete for ever more funding. Oh, and of course all the Bayh-Dole nonsense about inventions. Maybe, then, Bush was wrong about the distinctive role universities have in the research enterprise. Maybe universities–in part under the influence of federal funding–have been eager to abandon freedom of inquiry, so long as there is a free ride of federal funding. Another instance of perverse institutional incentives.

My sense is that the approach to advancing the frontiers of science using government funding has failed. Bush was ignored on key points, federal agencies and university administrators rushed to fill in a system of procedures and protections that met institutional objectives both federal and university, and freedom of inquiry has been dismissed, along with the pleasure of finding things out, as rotten, unproductive, silly idealism. Tack on institutional control of whatever is discovered, to be withheld pending the arrival of wealthy speculators who combine a love of monopoly with a character flaw of being willing to share, and you have boxed the approach within the cardboard of administrators. Administrators decide what areas should be studied, what grants should be awarded, how those grants are contracted, what the rules and regulations will be, how to satisfy auditors, what constitutes productivity, and who will be favored with exclusive access to the results “for commercial use.” Nice. But apparently this outcome is so much better–at least according to science policy pundits–than that proposed by Vannevar Bush. All it needs are some “tweeks.”

Again, was Vannevar Bush so wrong to advocate for freedom of inquiry in the implementation of a program of federally funded research to expand the frontiers of science, to change the ways available to think reliably about the natural world?



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