The linear model’ did not exist: Reflections on the history and historiography of science and research in industry in the twentieth century



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The linear model’ did not exist: Reflections on the history and historiography of science and research in industry in the twentieth centuryi

David Edgerton


in Karl Grandin and Nina Wormbs (eds), The Science–Industry Nexus: History, Policy, Implications. (New York: Watson, 2004)

‘The linear model’ has become a term of art in studies of science policy and innovation, and in some historical studies of science and technology.ii It is, like ‘technological determinism’ and ‘Whig’ history of science and technology, an invention of academic commentators.iii Like these, but unlike ‘scientific revolution’ or ‘big science,’ ‘linear model’ was not meant to be an analytically useful concept: it is there to be condemned as simplistic and inaccurate. It is a foil for the more elaborated academic account, in short, a classic straw man. But it is more than a straw man: although it is of recent invention, some students of science and technology have given the model historical agency. They have come to believe that it existed in the minds of academic analysts and key policymakers of the past, and that it had a powerful influence on policy and practice. Worse still, the idea of ‘the linear model’ often locks even critics into a concern with ‘basic’ science, even in the study of ‘innovation’: proponents (such as they are) and critics, share a model of science in which science is academic research. In this model studies of academic research are privileged, as is innovation in such studies.


I will argue that using and criticizing the term ‘linear model’ avoids critical engagement with the much richer models of innovation developed by academic specialists in innovation, as well as many crucial historical actors. Accounts of innovation in the 20th century, and indeed science in industry in the 20th century, more usefully start from a conceptual frame quite different from either the ‘linear model’ or the usual criticisms of the model. In particular the history and historiography of non-academic research is a key resource. For example, the history of industrial research and of science in industry, and new accounts of military research and development—both significantly often treated as part of the history of ‘technology’—provides a rich alternative reading of the history of twentieth century science, including the development of academic science, ‘big science,’ interdisciplinary research, and more obviously the ‘industrialization of research,’ which historians of ‘science’ should pay attention to.iv We need to be careful, however, because the academic research model has affected even our understanding of science in industry and the military. Industrial and military research and development was much more than central corporate or government research laboratories. I argue that we should go further still, and note the systematic conflation between ‘science’ and ‘research:’ most research is not academic, and most science is not research. Finally, I will argue that the case of the ‘linear model’ allows us to reflect on the general tendency to attack straw men in academic studies of science and technology, and on the lack of cumulation in the historiography of science and technology.

What is ‘The Linear Model’?


‘The linear model’ is clearly a term of art, but one that is rarely if ever closely defined. The term tends to be used in the sense of a model of innovation, rather than say, science, but most commonly it is a model of the interaction of science and society, and science and economic performance specifically. The model is often presented diagrammatically, as in Figure 1, and comes in many variants. The lack of clarity, the lack of consensus, or indeed debate over the details of the model is itself indicative that we are not dealing with a worked-out model which anyone ever believed in. Yet we can usefully distinguish some common themes. The ‘linear model’ incorporates three elements—the nature of the sources of innovation, of the innovative process, and the effect of innovation. ‘The linear model’ is usually taken to be something like the following: ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental,’ ‘pure’ or ‘undirected,’ scientific research is the main source of technical innovation; the process of innovation is a sequential one, by which discoveries arising in such research are developed in a sequence through applied research, development and so on, to production. Overall, the innovation produced is the main source of economic growth.v This reading is very close to what Donald Stokes takes the ‘linear model’ to be, in his recent study of science policy, as I discuss further below.vi Although is it is often described as a ‘linear model of innovation’, even when described in this way, it includes a model of effects of innovation: For example, Harvey Brooks describes the “linear-sequential model of technological innovation in which radical innovations are triggered by new scientific discoveries and become foci for the growth of new industries and, thereby, sources of economic growth and employment.”vii Yet stated as clearly as above the ‘linear model’ is very hard to find anywhere, except in some descriptions of what it is supposed to have been. The most brazen propagandist for scientific research would wish to avoid formulations which so explicitly beg so many questions: ‘the linear model’ not only did not exist, but it could not exist as an elaborated model.

[FIGURE?]

That the ‘linear model’ has been significant is not itself a straw man. By the 1990s ‘the linear model’ and ‘the linear model of innovation’ were terms in very widespread use in the academic and official literature (as a check with a search engine, or leafing through the pages of specialist journals like Research Policy will verify). It is always, however, something that was surpassed, criticized, to be moved beyond.viii That there was widespread discussion of the ‘linear model’ was often commented on in academic literature in the 1990s. In 1993 I claimed that “there is much condemnation of the so-called ‘linear model’ of innovation: the argument that science, leads to technology, and thence to economic growth.”ix By 1995 one paper in Research Policy was claiming, “The linear model of innovation is the key reference point for understanding the relationship between science, technology and economic development.”x The doyen of innovation studies, Chris Freeman, writing in 1996, noted that “at one time it was almost impossible to read a book or an article on technology policy or technological forecasting that did not begin or end” with a polemic, against the “so-called ‘linear model of innovation.’”xi Freeman himself suggested that “The linear model cannot […] be dismissed simply as a convenient straw man erected for the convenience of those expounding alternative ideas.”xii Ernest Braun, another veteran science policy academic, and around the same time, complained about the tendency to attack the crudest linear models, which in effect no one had ever believed in.xiii


‘The linear model’ is a term of art without a history. As far as I know no-one has enquired into the origins of the term ‘linear model,’ though the idea that is a recent creation as implied in one useful account of the concept in the context of ‘science parks:’ Doreen Massey and colleagues see the ‘linear model’ as used in Britain as something recent, developed out of a particular historical account of science and industry in British history.xiv If the term has no history, the underlying concept, has a very elusive one. Many accounts imply and some state (as I show further below), that the model was central to Vannevar Bush’s Science: The endless frontier, and that this was the key to the influence of the model. A recent example is found in an essay review in Isis where it is noted that “historians have grown skeptical of the interpretative reliability of the so-called ‘linear model’ of ’science-push’ innovation, which, as popularized by Vannevar Bush and others, became an axiom of faith for many who drove and defended science and technology policy for over fifty years.”xv

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