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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Putting the Linear Model into the History of Science Policy

There is a suggestion in some of the more recent literature that something very close to ‘the linear model’ was the core idea in ‘science and technology policy’ after 1945, at least into the late 1960s. Many historical studies of US and British science policy, even if they do not use the term ‘linear model’, refer to ‘articles of faith’ and ‘paradigms’ amongst which was support for basic research on economic grounds, going beyond a ‘science policy elite.’lxi Bruce Smith, writing of US policy notes that: “While a healthy basic research effort as the lynchpin of the system was a primary article of faith, the consensus was broad enough to include those who wanted more basic research, and those who had doubts, because there was money for all.”lxii In the non-academic literature, the ‘linear model’ looms large as the core of post-war policy, with implicit and explicit reference to Vannevar Bush. The first example refers to Britain:
science was seen as the engine of progress and as such worthy of State patronage. The science policy debate therefore focused on the resource inputs into science, in the belief that if a country had a sufficient investment in basic science then technological innovation, economic growth and social progress would surely follow. Within this ‘science push’ phase, the chief policy issues concerned the funding of ‘big’ science, above all nuclear research; the search was for criteria for choice. Below this strategic level (in which scientists themselves played a considerable part), the chief mechanism for resource allocation was peer review. Phase 1 took a fundamentally optimistic view of science as a quest—an endless frontier. Serendipity would take care of the rest. This linear model of science pushing technology, which policy-makers once saw as a self-evident truth, has long since gone as the relationship between basic science and technological innovation has come to be understood as highly complex and quite difficult to influence.lxiii
The second example is a US embassy summary of a Chinese document on science and technology policy, which testifies to the ubiquity of the model:
Since 1945 the United States has followed the basic research to applied research to product development linear model propounded by President Roosevelt’s science advisor Vannevar Bush in his 1945 book ‘Science—the Endless Frontier.’ According to this view, which has been fundamental to U.S. S&T policy, basic and applied research are distinct and not complementary.lxiv
If the content of Science: The endless frontier is misrepresented so its influence is exaggerated. As historians have long pointed out, its main recommendations were ignored. Basic research was increasingly funded by government, but neither by the agencies or in the spirit proposed by Bush. For while Bush proposed the support of basic science across a wide field by a new agency, many different agencies were to do so, above all the Office of Naval Research, the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Institute(s) of Health, and so on. When the National Science Foundation was formed in 1950, it was an addition not a substitute: the ONR dominated basic research into the early 1950s, even in the early 1960s the NSF supported less than 10% of all ‘basic research,’ and less than 15% of all federally-funded ‘basic research.’lxv The Department of Defense was still supporting as much as 44% of federally funded basic research in universities and colleges in 1958.lxvi Did these funding agencies really believe in free untrammeled university research directed only by curiosity, as the ‘linear model’ analyses of post-war science policy would imply? Historians are clear: in the case of physics the military did not believe they were funding generic ‘fundamental science’ even if the recipients often claimed this.lxvii The ONR did not operate peer review as its main allocation process—it relied on ‘program managers.’lxviii Forman notes that the military spent 5% of the military R&D budget on ‘basic’ research, not because this was what was needed to feed technical development, but because it was a convenient proportion.lxix Furthermore, “In truth, only a small fraction of that 5% of R&D funds labeled basic research went to support investigation that could reasonably be called fundamental.”lxx By which he means much was devoted to techniques and applications. It was “a physics as the military funding agencies would have wished.”lxxi Academic physics was not in command, it was being used, and they “had lost control of their discipline.”lxxii
‘The linear model’ never dominated innovation policy; nor did it dominate narrower ‘science policy.’ Academic historians and other analysts have, by granting so much attention to policy for ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ research, reproduced the focus of the ‘linear model’ they criticize, and shared its assumption that what really mattered was this high level stuff. The rest is merely derivative. The problem is that the great bulk of research and development (which is better described as development and research) was not ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ or thought of in terms of the linear model at all: it was driven by quite different concerns. At best the ‘fundamentalists’, to call them something, were arguing for a small space for fundamental research in a world of applied, directed, and controlled research. They had to argue against large constituencies of technical experts and researchers and ‘users,’ who demanded control and direction of research and development, and did indeed control most research and development. It may well be the case that the ‘fundamentalists’ succeeded, relatively, in increasing the proportion of ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ research in total ‘research and development,’ but not that fundamental research ever dominated. And yet that is what much commentary on postwar research and development and innovation policy implies.

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