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 earliest use of the term ‘linear model’ in the context of innovation appears to be by William J. Price of the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and L.W. Bass of Arthur D. Little, in 1969. They argued, in Science, that
Innovation is often viewed as an orderly process, starting with the discovery of new knowledge, moving through various stages of development, and eventually emerging in final, viable form. According to this “linear” model, innovation seems to be a rational process, essentially similar to the other, more systematic functions of an organization. The assumption is that it can be analyzed into component parts and controlled rationally—that is to say, planned, programmed, managed much as other, more routine activities are.
By contrast they argued that studies of innovation showed that the “‘linear’ model” was not typical, that the innovation process was “irrational” and could not “be programmed in advance.”xvi If this is indeed the origin of the term, then from the first it is a term of criticism of a particular set of views of innovation. Interestingly, the view of innovation criticized is richer than the later ‘linear model,’ and so indeed was their criticism. They observed that in the Second World War, researchers brought many innovations forward. These researchers, were acting as ‘technologists,’ and not, they argued, as was often suggested, as ‘basic researchers.’ They also criticized the standard postwar view that innovation was a rational ordered plannable process. This view, it should be noted, was most radically and interestingly outlined by Schumpeter, and much criticized by later neo-Austrian economists with interests in science, like John Jewkes.xvii
The second use of the term that I know is also specifically concerned with innovation, and is also richer than later versions, though in another way. The once well-known British collection of case studies of innovation, Wealth from Knowledge, published in 1972, discusses and criticizes “linear models of innovation.” It takes then to be of two very different types neither of which corresponds to the idea of ‘the linear model’ in use today. The authors distinguished between the “discovery push” and the “need pull” “linear models,” and then broke them down further into four in total: 1) the “science discovers, technology applies” model, 2) the “technological discovery” model 3) the “customer need” model and 4) the “management by objectives model.” They go on to claim that few of their cases fit any of these models; they criticize them all.xviii The specific idea that basic or fundamental research was the main source of innovation (model 1) they saw as “widely held,” and often regarded as “self-evident” but they noted how rarely substantiated claims were made for it.xix Edwin Layton, citing Wealth from Knowledge, noted in the mid-1970s that there were a “variety of models” of technical development, but that “all of these models postulate linear-sequential models of the innovative process,” in which the linear sequence of cause and effect, followed from the first event. He agreed strongly with Wealth from Knowledge that actual innovation did not proceed in this linear-sequential way.xx By 1985, according to one study, there were two “traditional” models, the demand-pull and supply push.xxi
However, the use of the terms ‘the linear model’ or many ‘linear models’ appears to have been very rare indeed before the mid-1980s. It is particularly significant that it is not used in most of the important work on innovation of the time. Nathan Rosenberg does not seem to use the terms at all in his seminal collection of papers from the 1960s and 1970s Perspectives on Technology.xxii Although the nature of innovation, and its sources, are central themes Rosenberg discussed the work of Schmookler and Schumpeter, Marx and Engels, and many other economists and economic historians, none of whom were anywhere near endorsing ‘the linear model’ not least because they adopted much richer positions. Chris Freeman’s standard text, The economics of industrial innovation (second edition, 1982), doesn’t mention ‘linear models’ either. This is especially relevant because he was concerned not just with industrial innovation, but also government policy. Freeman indeed divides the post-war years into two phases of government “science and technology policy”: the first had a strong “supply side” emphasis on “building up strong R&D capability.” He very clearly has in mind not pure science, or academic research, but mainly large-scale R&D projects military and civil in principally in the atomic and aeronautical fields. Freeman’s second phase dates from the late 1960s had a stronger ‘demand’ orientation, and was influenced, as he sees it, by economic, political and environmental critiques of the supply side approach.xxiii
Nor is the ‘linear model’ there in more detailed work on these topics in the pioneering days of the journals Science Studies, or Research Policy, which started publication in the early 1970s.xxiv It is missing from the seminal 1977 paper by Nelson and Winter “In search of a useful theory of innovation,”xxv and the well-known empirical study on the sources of invention by Vivien Walsh.xxvi Indeed to this day much good work in historical and other studies of innovation does not feel the need to invoke ‘the linear model.’ For example, Mowery and Rosenberg’s book of 1989 does not appear to mention ‘linear models’,xxvii nor do some more recent good textbooks on technology and society, by for example, Rudi Volti and Kurt Jacobsen.xxviii Historical studies of US and British science policy do not generally use the term ‘linear model,’ xxix and key reviews of the economics of science and innovation don’t mention it
However, since the 1980s the term ‘the linear model [of innovation]’ has become a standard term in much of the literature, extending to historical work, to describe what is taken to be a standard or traditional position. Use of the term diffused very quickly, together with the assumption that it was dominant even in the academic literature on science and technology. As already noted, it always referred to a position that had been criticized and/or should be criticized as a myth, but was itself allegedly prevalent and influential. The first academic use of the term in the singular, common form of ‘linear model’ dates from 1983. It is due to Stuart MacDonald, and is as follows: “Although a staunch defense of the linear model of innovation […] would be rare, it is very convenient when dealing with such an uncertain process as technological change to assume that everything hangs on research.”xxxi A paper by S.J. Kline on industrial innovation (from 1985), credits the Price and Bass paper of 1969 with the term ‘linear model,’ referring specifically to the idea of innovation an “orderly process starting with the discovery of new knowledge.” Kline recognizes that Price and Bass saw this as an inadequate model, but he sees the model as central: “the linear model continues to underlie the thinking in many current speeches and much writing,” seeing it as implicit in push-pull models, and in the very term ‘R&D.’ He goes on to claim, “no other model has been available.” In this case, as in others, it is unclear what exactly is being referred to since no examples are cited, nor is the prevalence of the argument examined, nor is it clear whether the market-pull linear model is taken as a linear model or not.xxxii But one 1988 textbook already refers to the “notion that technical innovations result from the application of new scientific insights and ideas. Such a notion is often referred to as the linear model of innovation.”xxxiii
The term ‘linear model’ quickly came to be used in papers concerned with new theoretical approaches to the history and sociology of science and technology. Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, in their well-known joint manifesto for SCOT (social construction of technology) found it useful to attack the “widespread use of simple linear models to describe the process of innovation.” Although they refer to models in the plural this is because “The number of developmental steps in these models seems to be rather arbitrary […]” and varies. They clearly have academic studies in mind since they suggest that they have contributed a great deal to understanding of “conditions of economic success in technological innovation;” they cite no examples, and claim that such models are not of interest to them because they ignore technical content! They also claim that their “multi directional” model is preferable to the ‘linear model’, which they see as important in “many” innovation studies and “much” history of technology. xxxiv In this latter case the ‘linear model’ does not seem to be focused on basic research. Pinch and Bijker were not alone in making use of ‘the linear model’ as something for new approaches to compare themselves with. Arie Rip noted in a paper given at a conference of historians of science and technology specifically discussing science-technology relations:
It is convenient to start with a brief discussion of the so-called “linear model” of the relation between science and technology. That technological innovation derives from scientific discovery, as it were in a linear sequence, is a myth, but a prevalent myth. As a myth it is tenacious because of its links to important legitimations of science as the horn of plenty, and of technology as the magic wand. The linear model has some truth in it, but it hides more than that it helps our understanding.xxxv

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