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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Did the ‘Linear Model’ exist by Other Names?

If, as seems clear, no academic study of innovation, has ever proposed or defended a ‘linear model of innovation’ it does seem rather odd that historians of sociologists of science and technologists of the 1980s came to believe that this had been so. Perhaps this was because a ‘linear model’ had been implicit in such literature. And yet, as we have see a generation of researchers working in the 1960s and 1970s was clearly either indifferent to or hostile to any implicit ‘linear model.’ But even the earlier academic literature, is not dominated by an implicit ‘the linear model.’ Take the British economists Charles Carter and Bruce Williams who did a great deal of empirical work on innovation in industry in the 1950s.xxxvi They warned of the likelihood of “overestimating the value of research in industry.” In some firms it was

too academic—too little oriented towards commercial needs. The misconception underlying the latter waste of scarce scientific resources is that research is naturally a left-to-right process—that is fundamental research produces something which is communicated to the industrial scientist, who performs some applied research and communicates the results to someone else who takes matters a step further. We have not found any cases of successful industrial research where this movement was not accompanied by movement in the opposite direction.xxxvii
Carter and Williams found in their studies that the majority of projects started outside R&D laboratories. If there was a ‘linear model’ it was a bi-directional one, which surely doesn’t count.xxxviii Clearer still is the case of The Sources of Invention by John Jewkes and others of 1958: it has powerful criticisms of many different assumptions that were made about many aspects of invention. They argued that the relations between science and technology were simply not known, that it was not obvious that the scientifically most wealthy country would be the richest, and warned against investing in ‘pure science’ in the expectation of a pay-off.xxxix Sources of Invention was particularly notable as a neo-liberal attack on the bureaucratization of innovation, and the assumption that it was predictable, an important element in one early version of ‘the linear model,’ as we have seen. More generally, in the 1960s at least, economists pointed to the clear lack of positive correlation between expenditures on research and development and economic growth—a clear general argument against the linear model at the macro-level.xl At the same time there was a great emphasis on ‘demand-pull’ models of innovation. It is thus difficult indeed to argue that economists put forward, or believed in, ‘the linear model of innovation.’ They certainly distinguished between ‘science,’ ‘invention,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘diffusion’ and so on, but that doesn’t amount to a model of innovation. The closest I could find to an endorsement by an economist, and then only for heuristic purposes, of something that looks like a linear model, is in a textbook by Rosegger of the 1980s, which refers to ‘stage models.’xli On another dimension it is clear that historians of technology rejected the model of science-technology relations implicit in the linear model, even in the 1940s and 1950s.xlii
My claim is then, that the ‘linear model’ did not exist in even the earliest generations of academic work on innovation. Did then ‘the linear model’ exist elsewhere, for example in the in the writings of scientists and engineers? The academic students of innovation, going back to the 1950s, are all criticizing something which looks a bit like the linear model. Certainly something like it can be found, not least if we see it as a general argument in favor of the utility of ‘theory’ as well as ‘practice,’ of ‘pure’ as well as ‘applied science’ and for the importance of ‘fundamental’ and ‘basic’ research. There is little doubt, for example, that academic research scientists have long made, and continue to make, exaggerated claims for the significance of their work for technological and economic development, and that agencies which came to fund them did the same. These arguments have often had the aim of securing state support. We could, if we wished, label these obviously self-interested claims the ‘linear model’, but to call the propaganda of academics ‘the linear model’ is to flatter the claims, and to avoid stating the obvious: that these are generally claims by academic researchers for the power of academic research. To call it a ‘linear model’, also runs the risk, especially in the context of the current use of the term, of smuggling in the assumption that what academic research scientists said about innovation was the most influential discourse of innovation around. In other words, to believe that ideas about innovation were created by academic research scientists, and diffused out to engineers, to government, to industry and to the public; to believe in a linear model not of innovation, but of ideas about innovation. That second ‘linear model’ is already implicit in the much literature in the history of science, and even technology.

What models of innovation, public and private, where used by government officials, industrial researchers, academics, is an open historical question. It is, however, worth presenting some tentative arguments, if only to stimulate research. Firstly, non-academic scientists and engineers have often been resistant or indifferent to the ‘linear model’. For the US case, George Wise was clear that the ‘assembly line model’ was the product of the ‘science-policy elite’ and not more widespread than that.xliii In a 1946 British conference concerned with industrial research, the closest thing to a linear model is the claim that while day to day advances came from industrial research, “really spectacular advances” and the “creation of new industries” came from “fundamental research,” but this was from the government official who was charged with funding such research.xliv The papers of a conference of US industrial research managers of 1954, reveals no explicit or implicit linear model in its deliberations.xlv In 1960 the research heads of important US companies were presented with a question: why was there such a lag between scientific discovery and industrial and military application in the USA and the free world; there was a concern that the Soviet Union was doing better. The questioners wanted ‘ways to shorten the “pipeline” between original scientific discovery and engineering application’.xlvi The question assumed the ‘linear model’ but the answers from directors of research, chief engineers and so on, are notable for questioning the question. The lag was shortening, said some, it was inevitable said, others, they assumed the question referred to many different processes, and so and so forth. It clear that the managers were not thinking is anything like as simplistic a way as the question implied. The ‘linear model’ was not the common understanding in industry.

Second, while academic research scientists’ arguments have generally been crude and repetitious they also often showed a richer and broader understanding of the role of academic research than the crude linear model (involving training of scientists and engineers, for instance). Thus Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 report Science: The endless frontier is much more subtle and interesting. This is a key case because in academic works which refer to ‘the linear model’ it is typically the only cited work which predates papers critical of the model from the 1980s. Many commentators are explicit in their attribution of the model to Bush, and/or see Bush as its most influential exponent. Chris Freeman has claimed that Science: the endless frontier “did indeed outline a linear model of science, technology and innovation, and […] was certainly influential among policy-makers.”xlvii More recently, Donald Stokes notes a “postwar paradigm” exemplified by Science: The endless frontier.xlviii He sees the paradigm for “science policy” as resting on the view that “basic science” should be unconstrained, and that this will lead to technological innovation, which became what he calls “the familiar ‘linear model’” when extended through to production.xlix Stokes argues that Bush endorsed a strong form of the linear model—”basic advances are the principal source of technological innovation [original emphasis],” noting too the use of the term “technological sequence” by the National Science Foundation in the early 1950s.l Elsewhere Stokes notes, “Nothing in Bush’s report suggests that he endorsed the linear model as his own,” though he did assert that scientific discoveries are a source of technological We need to clarify what Vannevar Bush was arguing, and not arguing, in his supposedly foundational text.lii
Another Look at Science: The Endless Frontier

Vannevar Bush was the wartime Director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, one of the many US agencies concerned with warlike R&D. In FY 1945 the OSRD spent around $100m, the US Army and Navy $700m between them and the Manhattan Project $800m.liii His Science: The endless frontier was a proposal for very particular policies concerned with a small part of postwar research. The report is not concerned with innovation nor with how this should be organized, thus it could not even implicitly set out a linear model of innovation. The term ‘linear model’ is nowhere used. Bush was arguing for the public support of basicliv science in universities at a time when he thought the growth in such research had failed to keep up with the huge rises in government and industrial research both of which were overwhelmingly and necessarily ‘applied.’lv He did not (as many later analysts have done when thinking in the ‘linear model’ terms they supposedly abhor) conflate policy for academic research, with policy for innovation. Thus “Expenditures for scientific research by industry and Government—almost entirely applied research—have more than doubled between 1930 and 1940. Whereas in 1930 they were six times as large as the research expenditures of the colleges, universities, and research institutes, by 1940 they were nearly ten times as large.” And he went on to note, “expenditures for scientific research in the colleges and universities increased by one-half during this period, those for the endowed research institutes have slowly declined.” The war made things worse:

We have been living on our fat. For more than 5 years many of our scientists have been fighting the war in the laboratories, in the factories and shops, and at the front […] they have been diverted to a greater extent than is generally appreciated from the search for answers to the fundamental problems—from the search on which human welfare and progress depends.
The key point was that “If the colleges, universities, and research institutes are to meet the rapidly increasing demands of industry and Government for new scientific knowledge, their basic research should be strengthened by use of public funds.”
It is easy to find in it claims which we might loosely take to be ‘the linear model,’ for example, “to secure a high level of employment, to maintain a position of world leadership—the flow of new scientific knowledge must be both continuous and substantial.” Or, “There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.” Or, “Today, it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress.” Or, that the universities, and other centers of basic research, were “the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.” Crucially however, he never claims basic research as the main source of invention, or innovation, and indeed he sees basic research as leading not to new products or processed, but repeatedly to ‘knowledge’ and to ‘understanding’ (terms which I have italicized in the quotations). Thus basic research “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.”lvi Universities were “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.” For the US could “no longer count on ravaged Europe as a source of fundamental knowledge. In the past we have devoted much of our best efforts to the application of such knowledge, which has been discovered abroad. In the future we must pay increased attention to discovering this knowledge for ourselves particularly since the scientific applications of the future will be more than ever dependent upon such basic knowledge.” Indeed his own model is not so much a linear chronological one, though that element is there, but a spatial one, in two senses. First, different kinds of scientific activity take place in different spaces, and secondly, the extension of scientific knowledge creates a new enlarged arena for the actions of others. That is the significance of the term ‘endless frontier’ for, as Bush noted, it was an established policy of the US government “that new frontiers shall be made accessible for development by all American citizens.” As Arie Rip points out, Bush had a “reservoir model” of the role of basic science, and indeed was somewhat avant la lettre here.lvii However, the idea that what basic academic research produced was knowledge was not unique to Bush. For example a 1931 study of US industrial research, which like Bush highlighted the relative numerical strength of industrial to academic research, claiming a ten-fold advantage, saw the industrial applied researchers looking to the “pure scientists for fundamental information [emphasis added]”.lviii The same study saw “industrial research” as the “managerial means for the systematic application to technology of the fundamental knowledge gained by pure science [emphasis added]”.lix

In Britain there was no equivalent to the Bush report, not least because Bush’s central claim was unnecessary: the state had long funded academic research by direct support of universities and of university research via the so-called ‘research councils’, including the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). But while there was indeed strong support for such research after the Second World War, and it did indeed increase, it is hard to see a ‘linear model’ in operation even for ‘basic’ research. Sir Henry Tizard, the chief government scientific adviser for both the civil and military side in the immediate post-war years, and a former head of the DSIR, clearly did not believe in the ‘linear model’. In his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1948, he asked: “to what then shall we attribute the relative decline [of Britain as a great power]? Shall we argue that a main cause was that research was on too small a scale?” He preferred other reasons, noting that Sweden and Switzerland had strong technology, but no great strength in research. His view was that “it is not the general expansion of research in this country that is of first importance for the restoration of its industrial health, and certainly not the expansion of government research remote from the everyday problems of industry. What is of first importance is to apply what is already known.”lx That view may not be incompatible with elements of the standard ‘linear model’, but it is different from and richer than the whole linear model.

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