The faculty stack, 2: Basic Research and IP Policy

The idea I will pursue here is that university faculty represent a distinct and important kind of discoverer–researcher, investigator, noodler, gadgeteer, irrelevanteur, loon. Our search for what we cannot imagine depends in having at least some really capable folks out looking for what it is that we don’t think about, whether that’s because we once knew things that we have since forgotten, or failed to recognize the importance of the lint we carry in our collective pockets, or just didn’t know the durn thing even was a thing. In this search, being tied up in institutional–even societal–purposes is limiting. There’s still much good stuff to find of course in institutionally directed or shaped study, but the desirability of constraints limits the search. We can set up many talented people to try to improve battery technology. Companies want that. Governments want that. Social advocates want that. But that throws resources into batteries and entrenches the idea of battery over other forms of energy storage, and other forms of energy. Better batteries is a good mission, but there’s room for talented people to be off-mission–and I’d argue, it’s not just important there are some, but necessary.

As Benoît Godin has pointed out, “innovation” starts its linguistic life in Greece as a word with the meaning “opening up a new mine.” Digging where there’s nothing with the expectation that it’s worth digging because you might find something anyway. Why dig where there’s nothing when you could be a productive digger helping out in a mine where there clearly, rationally, is already something?

Vannever Bush was thinking this way when he framed the argument in Science the Endless Frontier. People lose sight of Bush’s argument in Science the Endless Frontier. Bush is not concerned with research generally, or that research is the necessary starting point for discovery or new products or a great society. Rather, Bush is concerned with expanding the frontiers of science. It’s a geographical metaphor that dominates his argument, but the geography takes the form of a mind willing to work outside knowledge in its present form, beyond the present “frontier.” Beyond the frontier, stuff isn’t mapped out. There’s no validated theory. There may be maps with sea monsters on them and coastlines that don’t exist, rocks not mentioned–all emblems of the fact we don’t know, which is nice, but the deeper problem is the stuff we don’t know that we don’t know. Get there and you realize that you have crossed over to the unlighted side of the frontier. On the unlighted side, everyone’s voice changes, and they sound like loons. “Listen to our talk! We are saying a bacterium not stress causes stomach ulcers. What loons we are!”

Bush argues that American’s prosperity arises from a “heritage of great national wealth” (natural resources, easy to get at, for instance), “security as a nation in the modern world” (nice to have two oceans and Mexico and Canada have turned out okay after the early spats), and this: “the free play of initiative of a vigorous people under a democracy.” The “free play of initiative”–free enterprise, freedom to innovate, freedom to work outside the status quo, outside of societal expectations of what’s pragmatic, what ought to be the shared goal. Bush makes more than a covert argument for capitalistic “creative destruction.” He is not talking about tearing stuff down to create new opportunities for others to get wealthy rebuilding them some other way. He’s talking about doing things that make a process of building and destroying obsolete, without regard to what that does or doesn’t do to capitalism or socialism or anarchy.

For science, this freedom is also important:

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.

For Bush, part of the progress in science is that there aren’t enough people to go after all the frontiers that are worth digging at–especially frontiers that don’t appear to have any reason to dig at them. There’s nothing more there, Dr. Arroway, so don’t bother to listen for phone calls from the little green men, to paraphrase one of Carl Sagan’s points in Contact. For Bush, the moment you ask free intellects to work on the issues you find important rather than what they find important, you ought to go work on those issues yourself, if they are that important. Otherwise we end up asking our Einsteins and Sagans to write better spam filters, because bending space or thinking about the probability and diversity of life is just so, so very impractical, so off topic. Spam filters, though. That’s big. Something we all need. Science, provide.

The problem for Bush, however, is how to connect up this free play of free intellects with a legitimate interest by Government in advancing science, in finding out more that there might be and then having these new things available for meaningful application, who knows how or for what purpose, maybe for the military, or for medicine, or for communications. How to connect up free play with government purposes, with government resources, without running afoul of government control–or any control for that matter that would get in the way of that free play and still attract the free intellects (rather than whatever–greedy intellects, happy to be of service how do you do intellects).

Bush then lays out the idea of “basic research”:

Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them.

Basic research is noodling and gadgeteering. Basic research is thinking under the influence of opium or traveling to different places just to look at stuff that other people are jaded from looking at or never have bothered. The “without thought of practical ends” suggests something akin to “setting aside the importance of the work that others consider more worth doing.” Or, another way, one is not trying to solve anyone else’s problems. “Cure cancer!” Yes, we must. But that’s not a task for basic research. The cure for cancer does not necessarily start with basic research, but rather may draw on results uncovered by basic research. Going out to do basic research to solve someone’s problem is a good way to limit what you look for and what you will if anything discover. Mostly, you will tend to discover stuff that confirms that other people are on generally the right track but that you have a better idea than they do and so ought to get more funding. You won’t tend to find that the prevailing theories are just plain wrong, that we all are just too stupid, and we ought to start over entirely. Though that’s just what Richard Feynman announced at a conference talk, after which physicists stomped out in disgust and protest.

Bush argues for a general knowledge, not a particular knowledge. Who has bothered with the role of strange quarks in cancer? Nope, no literature on that, I bet. No one asks medical researchers to have a solid grounding in subatomic particles or quantum mechanics (even if some do), let alone physicians.

One of the peculiarities of basic science is the variety of paths which lead to productive advance.

Paul Feyerabend calls this “anything goes” in Against Method. Basic science does not follow some system, some “best practice.” Basic science is not all hypothesis and experiment, even if that might be one path to consider. The goal is advance in general knowledge, not just getting “results” or “least publishable result.” The goal is not constrained by following an approved system or making a proposal that’s plausible to a review committee. A variety of paths, not pre-approved in advance, “free play of free intellects.”

Bush continues:

Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind. Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy.

An early NSF annual report, citing Bush, puts it this way, nicely taking up the root idea behind “innovation”:

Basic research, in terms of its immediate utility, is a game of chance. In the search for oil, many a dry hole is drilled, but statistically the eventual output far out-weighs the cost. So it is with research.

In what way could we assess in advance the discoveries of new knowledge that will become important? Yes, we could discover *the* trigger for cancer, and be very happy about it–so long as we can figure out how to prevent the trigger from triggering or fix things once it has (it’s like the answer 42 without specifying the question.) Bush goes a different way–that the general knowledge that we might in the future have will inform the search for that trigger for cancer, that pushing the frontier broadly rather than in just the very dark hole around cancer, will lead to discovering applications even in finding a cure for cancer.

Again, Bush is not concerned with producing many more scientific papers on the growth of cuticle in plants. Bush is concerned that basic science push the boundaries of general knowledge, the frontiers. He does not propose a linear model, even though he talks about general knowledge, applied research, and prosperity through new things. Instead, he talks about how to expand our general scientific knowledge and training so that we are aware of this general knowledge, new and established both.

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.

Some commentators think Bush is seductively lying here, pushing political spin because it sounds good and will result in his getting funding for a national research foundation. Sure, there were politics afoot. There was Kilgore to deal with, and Kilgore’s criticism of Bush’s working with “elites” and “concentrating economic power” in organizations that were favored with government funding. Spread the government largesse around, argued Kilgore. Build up the non-elites, or at least fund so that federal funding doesn’t change the economic balance–everyone then ought to be built up at the rate of the slowest to build up. And Bush has to respond to that.

But I posit that Bush has a non-political point, too, a general and worthwhile point, that runs toward his problem of linking institutional resources up in support of free play of free intellects producing a range of impractical results, talking like loons and going off-topic and being generally unhelpful to the immediate needs that science should address if it is all that important that that the government should divert money to it.

Today, it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress.

If basic research is noodling and gadgeteering, is Tesla messing around under the influence of ideas that nobody else thinks are plausible, and what matters are the advances in general knowledge that result, and that knowledge is diffused among workers in all sorts of fields, then new things are bound to happen as people realize applications. If there’s too little progress in technology, Bush argues, look to too little advance in general knowledge or too little diffusion.

Bush then turns to universities. And here we consider faculty:

Publicly and privately supported colleges and universities and the endowed research institutes must furnish both the new scientific knowledge and the trained research workers. These institutions are uniquely qualified by tradition and by their special characteristics to carry on basic research. They are charged with the responsibility of conserving the knowledge accumulated by the past, imparting that knowledge to students, and contributing new knowledge of all kinds.

These organizations are our society’s resource for retaining knowledge and gathering new knowledge and training. Set up for the purpose. But there’s more:

It is chiefly in these institutions that scientists may work in an atmosphere which is relatively free from the adverse pressure of convention, prejudice, or commercial necessity. At their best they provide the scientific worker with a strong sense of solidarity and security, as well as a substantial degree of personal intellectual freedom.

Universities and research institutes reflect what Bush is looking for in how to link up government funding and endorsement of work with free play of free intellects. Governments, like companies, have a penchant to want to fund stuff that advances their purposes, want to fund stuff that sounds right, that is relevant to what they do. Bush gets that, confirms that this penchant is fine and good. But it is not what he is about in Science the Endless Frontier. That mission-directed, institutionally selected research is not the research that Bush is looking for. He needs research on broad fronts well supported but with a “substantial degree of personal intellectual freedom”:

All of these factors are of great importance in the development of new knowledge, since much of new knowledge is certain to arouse opposition because of its tendency to challenge current beliefs or practice.

Here’s that NSF annual report from 1953, making these same points:

The essential difference between basic and applied research lies in the freedom permitted the scientist. In applied work his problem is defined and he looks for the best possible solution meeting these conditions. In basic research he is released of such restrictions; he is confined only by his own imagination and creative ability.

Already we are slipping from “free play of free intellects” to the “freedom permitted the scientist”–as if institutions control scientists but in some cases relax that control somewhat, so scientists may be free-range hens, not merely cage-free. Bush aims for rogue hens that thrive outside the egg farm.

Bush then turns to universities and endowed research institutes to find environments that permit the scientist freedom while providing support, and even protection from the mobs (including, now, mobs of other scientists enraged because their claims about barrier reefs or causes of atmospheric warming or the hazards of tobacco use are called into question–yes, even the stuff you believe creates a problem for basic research).

The great irony is that Bush lost to Kilgore, and lost so badly that everyone could attribute what happened then to Bush’s insight, rather than to Kilgore’s, and Bush was pretty much helpless but to go along with it as his consolation prize. If Bush has a seductive lie, it is one he had to repeat to himself to get on with the National Science Foundation rather than the national research foundation that he proposed.

I will point out two ways Bush lost. First, “basic science” became institutionalized. There was a proper scientific method to be used for basic science, and work that did not follow this method was on the face of it sloppy, inattentive to proper form, and therefore not worthy of funding. Proper form became the basis for funding, not advances broadly where there weren’t so many people looking for roughly the same thing.

Second, the method of funding itself became systematized around the grant proposal. It is the proposal that is reviewed, not the person’s potential. How, reasoned the government administrators, do we choose were to fund if we are to spread the work around? If we choose based on people–their reputations, their past work, their pizzazz–then we might end up choosing elites, and that’s in disfavor after what Bush did with all those successes in rapid technology development based on new general knowledge during the war. So the administrators chose the proposal as the basis for review. If we reject a proposal, they reasoned, we don’t shatter some faculty member’s career because we have rejected the person.

It was a typical administrative dichotomy–person or proposal. Ruled out from the start–this is institutional thinking–is the idea that money might be disbursed based on intuition of people who had done this sort of thing already. Intuition smacks of favoritism, of bias, of elites choosing elites and not giving non-elites equal chance to participate, to dip their paws in the federal honeypot. Reducing everyone to competitive proposals based on established criteria, page limits, typefaces, proper citations, filed timely to deadlines, competitively ranked against other proposals–that was the ticket to ensure fair, proper distribution of funds. So, research must be systematic, and funding must be based on an assessment of proposals.

Here’s a definition of “basic” research from federal regulations for DoD administration of scientific research (32 CFR 272.3):

Basic research is systematic study directed toward greater knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts without specific applications towards processes or products in mind. It includes all scientific study and experimentation directed toward increasing fundamental knowledge and understanding in those fields of the physical, engineering, environmental, and life sciences related to long-term national security needs. It is farsighted high payoff research that provides the basis for technological progress.

I’ve highlighted some of the qualifiers that diverge from Bush’s account of basic research. Now that research is systematic, it’s high payoff, it’s not pushing the frontiers of science but rather getting “greater knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects” of things. This is all very nice, as far as administrative depictions of research go. It’s a reasonable taming of the shrew. But it isn’t what Bush had in mind.

Here’s a definition of basic research from the Federal Acquisition Regulation (48 CFR 2.101):

Basic research means that research directed toward increasing knowledge in science. The primary aim of basic research is a fuller knowledge or understanding of the subject under study, rather than any practical application of that knowledge.

Again, sounds good, but has lost all the essential nuance. Bush is not about increasing “knowledge in science” but rather advancing the frontiers of that knowledge. There’s a difference. It’s not just the absence of the purpose of application, but freedom from the “adverse pressure of convention, prejudice, or commercial necessity.”

Bush looks to universities as the place to find such free intellects capable of free play, and in doing so he relies on university policies of academic freedom–freedom of research and publication but also freedom from pressures of convention, prejudice (including, say, scientific prejudice), and commercial necessity.” While those policies on academic freedom may be thought of as idealistic statements that must be set aside whenever someone makes an invention or gathers data or writes software code or whatever, there’s a line of reasoning that runs directly from the initiation of government funding for research at universities to just these policies.

If basic research matters, then so does the assurance of “full freedom” for the free play of those free intellects. If you want more funding for basic research, then you have a mandate to want more freedom to play with. And that includes freedom from university officials demanding you give over ownership of your ideas, inventions, information, records, codes, methods, and stuff you’ve made or collected so that these things can be withheld from general access (even your own general access) so as to increase their monetary value in hoped-for licensing transactions.


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