The Faculty Stack, 3: Linking Federal Resources with Free Play

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.” How can anything government touches stay free for very long, especially if touching with money, and with money a funding agreement, and with that agreement conditions, and to evaluate who gets the money, proposals, and with the proposals criteria and review committees, and then choices about who gets to be on the review committees and what they should review. Before you know it, government has made sure that the free intellects that might be given support to play are playing properly, starting with those that can right the best proposals that gratify review committees with their well argued, well annotated, nicely well connected proposals.

On top of that, Bush faced opposition to the idea that to advance the frontiers of science, you needed to work with the best intellects known to do that sort of thing. Senator Harley Kilgore argued that the federal government had to spread research dollars around. Economic power, he argued, should not be concentrated in the hands of a very few universities and companies as the result of ramped up federal funding for research.

University officials and federal agency officials had their hissy fits, too. Research power for basic science should not be concentrated in a single new, quasi-independent agency. Basic science research should be spread around–every federal agency and federal lab ought to do basic research. It sounded much more equitable and diverse to have multiple federal agencies working with scores, even hundreds, of universities and nonprofits and companies, to conduct basic research. Already you can see how the drift of the administrative response to Bush missed the point. Once the agencies are all involved, rather than a national research foundation, then there’s agency contracting, agency patent policy, a need to make federal contracting and patent policy uniform (this is a basic bureaucratic desire everywhere–efficiency and fairness and life is so difficult to manage if there are all sorts of variations to it, and so on), and we are off toward the policy and practice hell-hole that is Bayh-Dole.

Bush’s idea, then, to build the linkage between federal resources and “free play of free intellects” was to establish a “national research foundation,” independent of federal agencies but reporting to the president, run by a director and council that were drawn from citizens who were good at finding free intellects and giving them resources to help them play.

This national research foundation then would seek out free playing intellects and help them play more and faster. The best place for that, thought Bush, was the university, which had a track record of doing just this–a place with resources that took in intellects and let them play, at least when it came to research. Academic freedom, freedom of research, freedom of publication. Inventions were their own but for conditions that they voluntarily accepted. Most universities in 1945 when Bush produced Science the Endless Frontier did not compel faculty to assign inventions to the university or even to Research Corporation or another such external foundation. So, lots of faculty freedom.

The idea then was to link federal money with free play via three quasi-independent steps, first from government to the national research foundation and, second from the foundation via subventions (“grants-in-aid”) to universities, to be placed, third, in accounts to be drawn upon by free intellects for their scientific play. No one administratively appeared to want Bush’s idea to succeed, and it didn’t. Just to make sure Bush’s idea didn’t succeed, the administrative folks attributed what they did instead to Bush. Voila! Nothing left of what otherwise would have been a strong voice in opposition to what the administrators were doing. Isn’t politics just plain nifty when you get on to it?

Bush’s expected result was that scientific frontiers would be advanced. We would know more about what things there were in the world, and what they did, and how they might be interrelated. Not number of patents, not number of papers, not number of grants–but rather that we worked with new demonstrated insights about stuff in the world.

Bush lost. No national research foundation. No citizen whimsy trackers. No focus on expanding the frontiers of science. No “the government needs only a license to any inventions that might arise.” And by the time Bremer enfranchised the WARF approach against Research Corporation and Latker has made his experience in circumventing DHEW/PHS open access policies to funnel inventions made in public interest health research exclusively to pharmaceutical companies, using university patenting officials to do the deals under the Institutional Patent Agreement program, the administrative state–government and university alike–had reduced “basic science” to “properly proposed science–a detailed work plan, detailed budget, drafted in response to federal agency calls for proposals, following agency guidelines, competing with all others for approval, work spread everywhere, overlapping by agency, overlapping by university, all rushing to where the work looked the most likely (to the folks drafting the calls for proposals and the folks reviewing the proposals that came in) to result in outcomes that would prove them right that they ought to be getting funds for basic scientific research in the first place. Thus, all the talk on the “return on the public investment” and the like, as if the public were a financial speculator rather than the source of support for freely playing free intellects.

The administrative mind saw greater expansion of scientific frontiers by having John von Neumann, Richard Feynman, Jonas Salk, and the like writing grant proposals in areas that they hadn’t chosen to study, to be reviewed by committees of scientists that had the time to be on review committees rather than out in their sandboxes playing freely. Or, perhaps it was rather that whatever expansion of scientific frontiers there was to be had–if that was even all that compelling–would be had by making everyone compete on the same terms for funding, and eventually requiring uniform policies to control the results as well. If there’s going to be advances, they are going to be on terms approved by administrators.

Vannevar Bush’s interest in basic research to expand the frontiers of science was only part of his overall idea about technological progress. His experience during the second world war was that, if put to it, scientists with a broad awareness of established science and new, fresh areas of science, combined with industry engineers who knew production and logistics and “gadgeteers” who could build prototypes to demonstrate new things, such teams could produce new things that an established order could not imagine, or if they could, they would dismiss as impossible or not practicable or not properly on task with the objectives already approved and therefore counter productive. Thus, the digital computer, sonar, radar, monte carlo techniques, atomic bombs.

I call this Bush’s “unexpected model of innovation”–unexpected by the status quo institutions that control research and development directions. Run a skunk works along side such a status quo, slurps up new science and considers what is possible, builds that and then presents it, via authoritative folk, to the status quo. Adoption was prompt. It was war, after all. Changing the direction of an institution is not a matter of pitching a new idea to it–it is a matter of presenting working prototypes that are entirely outside the projected pathway of development of what the status quo is working on. Better defenses against torpedoes, say, rather than a way to detect enemy submarines by the sounds they make underwater. Take them out before they can fire their torpedoes.

The unexpected model then depends on new science of a expanding frontier variety–not available to just everyone, sufficiently out there that institutional plans decline to be early adopters of it–combined with industry sense of fabrication and assembly–and with people who can build most anything they are asked to build. Build these teams, put them on to something, and see what they come up with. They see the opportunity in the status quo. They know they are doing something different from all that. They don’t have to beg and justify their work to the status quo controllers of research direction and funding. They know what they do will already be tuned to industry practices for production. If they prototype it, industry will be able to make it, and if industry can make it, then it will be difficult for the military to say no, especially if the president of the country asks “why not? are you fools?”

But, such a thing was seen as elitist. Instead, we have hundreds of universities and nonprofits bouncing around using patent rights as a porch light to attract the status quo to their little fragments of research. Not so tuned to industry production, not prototyped in many cases, not presented to anyone by anyone important–not the university president, not the Surgeon General, say, and not even the inventive team. It is boggling to see how badly Bush’s idea was beaten back by the administrative state. And no wonder. The unexpected model of innovation is a serious threat to the systemic administrative mind. It moves past organizational controls while taking advantage of established infrastructure for production and a clear sense of how those involved on the front lines will take advantage of the new things they get.

All that you need for the unexpected model of innovation is (i) new science; (ii) a skunk works team led by ace scientists, folks with industry chops, and rapid prototypers; (iii) an authoritative presenter to an established order; and (iv) a war.

Thus, we have a “war on disease” declared in Science the Endless Frontier. That war isn’t supposed to be a metaphor. It’s actionable, justifying the formation of skunk works teams running outside the established order of medicine–outside the common sense, best laid plans, and plans for change of hospitals, governments, and companies alike. Those teams create to the point of practical application. They don’t depend on someone in the team inventing as the basis to start. They start with the insight of new science routed through industry smarts to rapid prototypers. The “commercialization” is baked into the design. Mass production is the role for private investment, with a “market” assured–it’s war practices that drives it, after all. The government will purchase all it needs.

Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier and Modern Arms and Free Men make the case for how the unexpected model works. Science the Endless Frontier pushes the boundaries of science using a research foundation uncoupled from federal agency missions, creating independent folks with a keen scientific awareness of both established and new science. To make this happen–to make independent discovery happen sooner, more diversely–there needed to be more resources, and more resources without an institutional agenda. Not companies, not governments, not mission-directed foundations. Free play, free intellects.

Perhaps the seductive thing in all this is that there can be free play of free intellects. Carl Sagan bemoaned the “demon-haunted world” and called for scientific training to counter hysterias. Sagan also argued against institutional domination of science. In Contact, Sagan makes the case that the safe scientific career, living off funding from the NSF, is problem, not solution.

University patent policy, then, sits at a critical institutional control point. It’s not in the administrative mindset to imagine that administration might be more effective if there’s a whole lot less of it. To the administrative mind, freeing anything is anarchy, chaos, and liability. The goal is rather to tame, order, make systematic, make uniform, make a machine that produces desired goals at acceptable costs–desired by the status quo, acceptable to the status quo. Bayh-Dole was used to tighten the administrative grip on research inventions, to ensure a supply of patents for speculative marketing under the Bremer-Latker vision of how institutions could be used to make the patent system a necessary requirement in any use of inventions made in research intended to benefit the public.

Even the idea that social issues should somehow organize and direct scientific research runs counter to what Bush proposed. We need a cure for cancer! But the new science that might lead to a cure for cancer does not necessarily, or even likely, arise from people studying cancer. For that matter, studying causes does not lead to cures. I’ve lost my arm in an accident. “Let’s study the cause!” Becoming shrill about it–scientists cannot organize themselves for anything purposeful, so we need a former general, or a celebrity advocate, to stand up and make them produce, you know, for the public good. Even that sort of thing runs far afield from Bush’s idea. The new scientific frontier one might draw upon to cure cancer might be quantum mechanics, or the Bragg peak, or proton imaging. Patenting such new things–for exclusive control–delays opportunistic activity even if licensed. Exclusive licensing means institutional control passing to institutional control. We are already far afield from the free play of free intellects, and far afield as well from skunk works to build new things outside the requirements of an established order and its interests.

According to administrative best practices, “free play” must be administratively organized and bounded. Results must be administratively controlled. Results must be dedicated to institutionally acceptable social purposes–“innovation” or “economic development” or “commercialization” or even “public benefit.” The metrics presented for the activity point to exactly its administrative purpose–patents, exclusive licenses, money made on those licenses. Doesn’t matter how, but more is better, based on volume and process. If you look at a university technology transfer office web site, you will find a description of a process. You won’t find anything along the lines of “we help people get lucky” or “we don’t care where the new science comes from or whether anyone has got patents–we create opportunistic skunk works with ace scientists, top industry production folks, and rapid prototypers to impress–or scare–the bejeezus out of the status quo.”

Perhaps institutional controls and free play of free intellects never will be a good match. Bush had a chance to connect up government funds with free intellects. He needed three hops–from government to a foundation, from a foundation to a university, and from the university to free intellects playing freely with science. But we never got it. We got Bremer-Latker-Kilgore instead. Road not taken. Road torn up before it could form. Just the opposite of building the roads as we walk them.


This entry was posted in Freedom, History, Innovation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.