Edgerton, the Linear Model, and the Historical Existence of Ideas July 28, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
Tags: Daniel Kevles, David Edgerton, David Hounshell, Richard Gregory, Sabine Clarke, Vannevar Bush
Although I have discussed the paper here a few times in the past, including in one of this blog’s first-ever posts, this post will revisit David Edgerton’s argument in “‘The Linear Model’ Did Not Exist” (available in .rtf format via his website @
The “linear model” is a very specific claim stating that basic scientific research in universities (or other non-profit institutions) contributes to national economy and security by producing new knowledge, which can then be translated into new technological applications. Edgerton’s argument that it “did not exist” is that it is an idea that has been held, in a strict sense, by few, if any, actors, and that it has been concocted as a straw man by individuals purporting to offer a superior alternative. I believe continued discussion of Edgerton’s argument is needed because the reasoning underlying its claims is not obvious, it is now being used productively in new work such as Sabine Clarke’s, and because it has broader historiographical significance.
Much difficulty may be caused by the problem of what it means for an idea to “exist” in history: how well does a historian’s articulation of an idea have to map on to the actual idea in order to claim that it existed?
For instance, at HSS last November, one participant (at the special session on John Krige’s American Hegemony book on the reconstruction of science in postwar Europe) held that Edgerton’s view that “the linear model did not exist” was absurd in that arguments for basic scientific research as leading to new technologies was prevalent, especially in the postwar period. I forget who said this, but the idea is also expressed in David Hounshell’s comment on “Did Not Exist” in GWW.
In this view, to say that basic research was merely linked to technological development qualifies as an expression of the “linear model”; it is not necessary to say that there was a direct relationship between a research result and its technological implementation. What seems to be the bottom line of qualification here is not the specificity of the model, but that it was used polemically as a justification to initiate new funding of basic research. This justification was essentially a promise that the research would, in some sense, result in future technological advance.
This interpretation causes a problem, though, because the implication is that the linear model was a specious justification — a self-serving rationalization designed to garner public (or, in the case of industrial research labs, corporate) funding for work that had no necessary economic benefit. However, to ascribe the status of rationalization to the idea is almost necessarily to presume the strictest version of the model. But (as Dan Kevles pointed out at the aforementioned HSS meeting) the mere point that technology developers can make productive use out of recent research is practically a truism.
The upshot here is that, depending on one’s interpretation of what the linear model means, historical claims can range from truism to cynical and specious self-justification. Clearly, then, much depends on what specific views historical actors held. The difficulty is that historical actors saw no need to theorize explicitly and in detail about the relationship. We must read their views from their proposals and their rhetoric. Let us go to the canonical case.
As Edgerton detailed, Vannevar Bush’s published report to the President, Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), is often cited as an important expression of the linear model on account of its advocacy for federal funding for basic, university-based research on the basis of its importance for further technological progress. Reference to the model allowed Bush to countenance a major violation of the tradition of federal non-involvement in university life.
However, one must willfully read a linear model into Bush’s phraseology, because nowhere did he state that basic research results are necessarily the immediate source of new technologies and applications. The more likely reading is the weaker truism that scientific research simply makes new developments possible, perhaps as a kind of catalyst in the process of technological improvement. Bush, remember, was himself an academic engineer, and would have understood intuitively the function of knowledge in technological work.
Reading Bush’s words against the spectrum of views described in Clarke’s recent Isis article, he seems to have been thinking of basic research somewhat along the prewar lines of Richard Gregory, wherein basic research provides a kind of pool of primordial intellectual resources, which were at that time being increasingly drawn upon in the advance of technical work:
Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.
However, Bush also seems to have been fully aware of the day-to-day independence of industrial and military “research and development” — geared specifically toward the improvement of existing technologies — from “basic research” activities. (One would hope, given his wartime experience as head of OSRD, which oversaw decidedly non-basic research.) Beyond that distinction, Bush likewise recognized the peculiar role of longstanding research programs in civilian government agencies, using language more-or-less echoing that used (per Clarke) to describe work in the British DSIR. Bush:
Much of the scientific research done by Government agencies is intermediate in character between the two types of work commonly referred to as basic and applied research. Almost all Government scientific work has ultimate practical objectives but, in many fields of broad national concern, it commonly involves long-term investigation of a fundamental nature. Generally speaking, the scientific agencies of Government are not so concerned with immediate practical objectives as are the laboratories of industry nor, on the other hand, are they as free to explore any natural phenomena without regard to possible economic applications as are the educational and private research institutions. Government scientific agencies have splendid records of achievement, but they are limited in function.
Bush’s report was ultimately very ambiguous in describing the nature of “basic research”, industrial “research and development”, as well as the in-between work pursued in government agencies, and especially in describing the nature of the relationship between these categories. This ambiguity should not be taken as a license to ascribe a naive linear model to him. The only thing we can affirmatively ascribe to him, as far as basic research is concerned, is the view that basic research is simply important to the progress of technical development, that without it technical development, in the long run, may not be able to proceed past a certain point.
To say that the linear model did not exist is to liberate us to ask further questions, which cannot be answered by textual exegesis, but only by examining how Bush actually managed various activities in basic research, and in industrial and military research and development, working as director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, as chair of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as director of the committee structure of the wartime OSRD, and the postwar Research and Development Board. It is clear, for example, that Bush did not derive his budget proposals for his proposed National Research Foundation from any sort of correlation between university funding and expected economic output, but rather from “studies by the several committees” which provided “a partial basis for making an estimate of the order of magnitude of the funds required to implement the proposed program.” We have little idea of how these “studies” were conducted and integrated into recommendations, but they clearly point to a more sophisticated point-of-view than we would garner from being satisfied by describing Bush’s ideas simply in terms of the “linear model” divined from his rhetoric.
In a follow-up post, we will look at the persistent difficulties in finding a role for basic research in industrial organizations, wherein it will be emphasized that a lack of clear policy is not adequately described in terms of adherence to a linear model.