HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Basic Research Turns 67

Here’s an interesting little nugget: “basic research,” like the atomic bomb, was born in July 1945.

The term did not exist until coined by Vannevar Bush for his work Science: the Endless Frontier, a roadmap for post-war American science policy commissioned by President Roosevelt. Prior to WWII, no distinction was made between “basic” and “applied” science; although some sciences were obviously more theoretical than others, it was widely recognized that science was always “applied,” at least to some degree. After all, what was the point if not to solve peoples’ problems?

Bush’s goal was to keep wartime-levels of funding flowing in the direction of university-based boffins, while at the same time eliminating the military’s role in approving and directing research projects. This was no mean feat; public investment in science in WWII was literally unprecedented, and had been justified entirely on national security grounds. Take away the military element and it was not entirely clear what the public-good argument was.

Bush supplied the rationale in two ways. First, Bush posited that “a nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill,” and even managed to extend this argument to suggest that Keynesian notions of full employment were in fact impossible without investments in science. Second, he argued that there was a sharp distinction between “basic” research (“performed without thought of practical ends”), the sole source of all new knowledge from which more “applied” research” (something to be left to business and the military) could be developed. This was less an empirical description than a rhetorical carve-out. If scientists were to be denied either their money or their independence, society’s sources of new knowledge (and hence its economic vitality) would inevitably dry up.

There is a fair amount of hooey in all this. Most of biomedicine and engineering, for instance, make virtually no sense if divorced from “practical ends.” Information spillovers and the growth of ICT means that economic leadership is substantially less dependent on leadership in basic knowledge production than was the case in 1945 (think Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance). Yet Bush’s report continues to exercise a remarkable hold on the way people think about science policy. We should applaud its success in keeping large amounts of research funding in the hands of scientists rather than the military, but we should perhaps be more critical of the amount of policy which continues to be based on a 67-year-old document which is long on rhetoric and short on empiricism.

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One Response to Basic Research Turns 67

  1. Pingback: Fundamental Research | HESA

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