, Volume 50, Issue 3, pp 339–361 | Cite as

Basic Research as a Political Symbol

  • Roger PielkeJr.


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.


US science policy Symbolism History United Kingdom 



Thanks to Warwick University Modern Records Centre, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford, The Royal Society, and for research and publication support Zachary Johnson, Sarah Leshan, Ami Nacu-Schmidt, Sara Ward and Elizabeth Hall. This work was supported the US National Science Foundation’s program on Science of Science and Innovation Policy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Science and Technology Policy ResearchUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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