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Edgerton, the Linear Model, and the Historical Existence of Ideas July 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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David Edgerton

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 @ #41 #27, and published in The Science-Industry Nexus: History, Policy, Implications, Karl Grandin, Nina Wormbs, and Sven Widmalm, eds., 2004; hereafter GWW).

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.


1. Thony C. - July 28, 2010

Will, can you recommend a good basic scientific biography of Vannevar Bush? I’m interested in his role in the history of computing.

2. Will Thomas - July 28, 2010

As biographies go, there’s still only his memoirs and one general biography by G. Pascal Zachary. There are, however, a few different book- and article-length contributions on his role in computing, though I can’t personally vouch for them. We have a bibliography on ACAP (even though he’s not a physicist — note that the absence of a photo in ACAP is due to the fact that I still need to acquire permission for the one we want to use, not because we don’t have one).

3. David Bruggeman - July 28, 2010

The key phrase for exploring V. Bush and computing comes from his conception of the Memex, described in his 1945 Atlantic article, As We May Think


There has been some scholarship around the memex, either working with the general idea, or with Bush and his thinking of it. I’m more familiar with his research management/science policy work, so I can’t recommend a specific article or articles off the top of my head.

As for the linear model, perusing the Bush papers at the Library of Congress I ran across correspondence that seemed to confirm that he did not ascribe to a naive linear model (it’s been years since I did the work, and my notes are not right at hand). However, such a model did become effectively ascribed to him by policymakers in the decades following. The references to seed corn in Science, the Endless Frontier, have been appropriated by many to make the kinds of justifications for basic research described in your post. But that gets into a different kind of historical exploration of Bush than what you’re discussing here, one focused on how his work was used rather than one focused on what Bush thought.

I prefer to think of the linear model construction as an incomplete explanation of scientific and technological development, rather than wrong or inaccurate. I think most engaged with science and technology policy in the states don’t consider the linear model a good description of knowledge production, but referring to basic/fundamental research as an important input for technological output is a common rhetorical tactic in policy arguments because it’s relatively simple. The state of prewar science and engineering described by Clarke made an acceptance of a naive linear model easier, as there appeared to be a relatively short timeframe between research idea and realized application. As a result, it wasn’t hard for some to think the process could be repeated again, even though much of the resources drawn on prior to and during WWII had been developed and/or refined over a long time.

4. Thony C. - July 28, 2010


5. V. Bush and the Linear Model – Who Believed What? « Pasco Phronesis - July 28, 2010

[…] by David Bruggeman on July 28, 2010 The fine folks at Ether Wave Propaganda have posted on the linear model associated with Vannevar Bush (that basic research feeds into applied research and then into […]

6. Will Thomas - July 28, 2010

Thanks for the comment and the link, David. I notice that one sentence I had here got chopped in my editing, which is that the presumption of a past existence of a naive model establishes a history of ideas, which assumes a progression from simple thinking to complex thinking. The temptation here (as almost always) is to put STS or science policy studies at the end of this historical arc, rather than charting who in the past thought precisely what.

More to your comment, it indeed seems necessary to draw an explicit distinction between the history of research management and the history of rhetoric in advocacy within a larger history of ideas. Notably, Edgerton has himself, in a number of places, criticized rhetoric that investment levels in basic research (or R&D) and national competitiveness are clearly linked, a position he links to a broader “technocratic critique”, a part of a rhetorical-historiographical trend of “techno-declinism”.

More on this from another perspective in the follow-up post.

7. Thony C. - July 29, 2010

Thanks to Will ans David for the bibliographical info.

The key phrase for exploring V. Bush and computing comes from his conception of the Memex…

I’m actually much more interested in his differential analyser because all of the American computer pioneers in the 1930s and 40s are on record as saying that their research was motivated by a desire to improve on and extend the capabilities of Bush’s machine. Bush’s earlier work also involved both Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon! Although not together.

8. David Bruggeman - July 29, 2010

Looking forward to the follow-up, as (professionally speaking) I’m usually surrounded by the linkage of investment levels and national competitiveness. I need to read more Edgerton.

As for the differential analyzer, I’d start with whatever MIT might have on it. For all I know, they’ve preserved some version of it.

9. Will Thomas - August 24, 2010

Interestingly, Roger Pielke, Jr., a Colorado science policy scholar whose interests are primarily in climate change science and policy, has a short piece in the 19 August 2010 Nature on “Science: The Endless Frontier” and its legacy. For those without subscription access, he has made his piece available here.

Pielke concentrates on the report as a key moment in the establishment of the term “basic research”, which both implied research that was independent from application-orientations, but also potentially valuable. He feels that the term has a mixed legacy in the public lexicon: it is a “fuzzy concept” that fails to get at the expected benefits of funding.

Certainly the term is fuzzy, but as a generic term it has not been the only one used in setting science policy, as anticipated benefit or generic scientific interest has often been used as criteria for allocating support. Nor has it crippled discussion in the public sphere, as the low anticipated utility of, say, super high energy accelerators, has been distinguished from, say, energy research.

Of course, this has not prevented some from claiming potential benefit as a justification for projects with low anticipated utility (spin-offs from manned space flight is probably the most notorious example), but the persistence of specious public justifications should not prevent us from acknowledging the frequent richness of historical discourses.

Indeed, one might also note Bush’s own interest in “industrial research” (which he felt was vital, but that the government should not fund) and “government research” (which, as noted above, was not quite “basic”, but was, obviously, subject to government support. Much of this would be done in universities, but Bush saw a smaller role for it, as conducted in civilian labs, such as, I presume, the National Bureau of Standards.)

When we have an interest in hocking our own discursive wares, there is always a tendency to play down the worth and prominence of existing ones, and to play up past discursive failures of the always-frustrating public sphere. There is also a tendency to pin these failures on a particular source, which I tend to think this article does with Bush. The article comes with a nice graph showing historical usage of the phrase “basic research” in the NYT, Science, and Nature, and each publication seems to have had a different pattern of use. I would be much interested in the evolution and context of the use of the term, rather than on its foundations.

Pielke, by the way, runs an eponymous blog, dedicated mainly to public discourse relating to climate change. He posted about his Nature piece here, with promises of future work, focusing on the role of Henry C. Wallace and his son, Henry A. Wallace, in advocating for research. I very much look forward to this, and am appreciative of the promised emphasis on policymakers who are not scientist-advocates or scientist-advisers of one kind or another.

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