The use of the phrase “basic research” as a term used in science policy discussion dates only to about 1920. At the time the phrase referred to what we today commonly refer to as applied research in support of specific missions or goals, especially agriculture. Upon the publication of Vannevar Bush’s well-known report, Science – The Endless Frontier, the phrase “basic research” became a key political symbol, representing various identifications, expectations and demands related to science policy among scientists and politicians. This paper tracks and evaluates the evolution of “basic research” as a political symbol from early in the 20th century to the present. With considerable attention having been paid to the on-going evolution of post-Cold War science policy, much less attention has focused on the factors which have shaped the dominant narrative of contemporary science policies.