As the rise of basic research as a pivotal keyword in science policy during the post-war era was not peculiar to Germany, it is now time for a more comparative perspective. Although the two terms fundamental and basic research had gained greater currency throughout the 1930s in US science and, more generally, in science throughout the English-speaking world than had the term Grundlagenforschung in German science, they had not yet spilled over into all the different disciplines.Footnote 12 Analysis of the journal Science demonstrates that, at that time, the use of these terms was still limited to biology (agriculture as well as studies on vitamins and proteins, which attracted pharmaceutical companies, also employed these terms), industrial research, and engineering. Once again, the terms denoted long-term studies focusing on fundamental problems in biology, chemistry, or physics emerging within the context of technical and application-related questions. The term fundamental research did not constitute an antonym to applied research; it was not part of a boundary discourse. In 1942, the research administrator of the US Department of Agriculture described basic research as follows:
In all these cases, either basic research precedes the practical applications of science, or a certain amount of this kind of research is found to be necessary somewhere along the line to clear-up obscurities that block further progress. … the point I am making is that in research there is no single road to practical results. If we keep our eyes constantly and exclusively on what seem to be immediate needs, we miss some of the richest fruits of scientific work – the fruits that grow from the discovery of important fundamental facts. … The emphasis I have given to basic research and freedom of inquiry does not mean that we should pay any less attention than we do to homely experimentation directed toward solving everyday problems. (Auchter 1942: 287, 288)
In the case of engineering, the concept of fundamental research largely represented the ongoing process of the scientification of technology (Gibb 1937: 233–234; Jewett 1944). Institutes such as the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research at the University of Philadelphia, which defined itself as a link between science and technology (or in the words of Edward Weidlein “between the world of science and the industry”), used the term fundamental research as a general label for their projects and training (Weidlein 1935: 562).
In light of these examples, the argument that the new concepts reflected the increasing expectation that science should be beneficial to the economy and to society as a whole also applies to the US case. Scientists were aware of the epistemic and institutional challenges to research that the 20th century brought forth. As a result of the increasing commercial potential of fundamental research, patents became a major issue at US universities quite early on. In contrast to the German universities, where the right to hold patents appeared to be considered part of the individual academic freedom of German professors (at least until the rise of the Nazi reign),Footnote 13 the American land-grant colleges introduced patent regulations as early as the 1920s. Nevertheless, the administrative, legal, and ethical problems of patenting within institutions of higher education remained a controversial issue over the next few years (Potter 1940).
After dealing bit-by-bit with the shifting situation of science in the early 20th century, the Second World War marked an incisive and formative experience for the scientific community. When the US entered the war, the national mobilisation of science acquired the same level of importance there as in the other warring countries. In the early 1940s, the US debate on the effects of wartime revolved first and foremost around financial redistribution in science. The US universities, which depended mostly on private donations, were considered to be the losers in this process. In 1941, the long-standing idea of a federal fund that aimed to guarantee research funding on a regular and permanent basis was reignited. Although the financial crisis of the American universities had begun earlier during the Great Depression and bore several failed attempts to secure federal support for academic research (K. T. Compton 1934; Geiger 1986: 246–255), proponents of this initiative blamed the war for worsening the financial situation of the universities and diagnosed a crisis in fundamental research (Blakeslee 1941).
Those advocating federal support argued that a new form of funding was necessary because research in the basic sciences, that is in basic disciplines such as physics or chemistry, laid the indispensable foundation for future benefits: “We are all familiar with the material conveniences and comforts which science has given us, but we often forget the original patient, fundamental research which made them possible and will be the basis for future advances” (Robbins 1941: 8). As the concept of fundamental research had thus far denoted only research with a clear reference to application, the novelty here was the fact that the supporters of such a fund classified the entire endeavour of academic research at universities as fundamental research. Moreover, the lack of financial support for the universities was in opposition to the better funding of industrial and governmental research, which was only supposed to favour research that could demonstrate the prospect of immediate benefits (Robbins 1941).
From Wartime to Peacetime: Vannevar Bush’s Plans for Transforming Science Policy
During the war, scientists had discussed the future conditions of science (Science 1942). At the end of the war, plans for a new science policy were already on the table. In the literature on research and development policy, funding for basic research and the dissociative model of basic and applied research in the post-war era are still inseparably linked to the name Vannevar Bush (Braun-Thürmann et al. 2010: 17). The MIT professor for electrical engineering served as presidential science adviser and, in particular, as chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and director of its successor organization, the Office of Scientific Research and Development. While coordinating the American military research programmes, including the Manhattan Project (the project devoted to constructing the atomic bomb), he began to make plans for a federal peacetime science policy. Based on the negotiations of four scientific committees (a Medical Advisory Committee, a Committee on Science and the Public Welfare, a Committee on Discovery and Development of Scientific Talent, and a Committee on Publication of scientific Information), in July 1945, Bush presented guidelines for future governmental promotion of scientific activity in the natural sciences and in medicine to the public. As well as providing financial support for academic research and junior scientists in the natural sciences, the proposals encompassed a reform of patent law and tax incentives for industrial research, the promotion of medical research, the plea for open science by fostering international exchange and strategies of declassification, and, finally, the sponsorship of basic research on military matters. Bush’s report “Science—The Endless Frontier” essentially sought to institutionalize federal science policy on a permanent basis (Bush 1945).
We should interpret his draft against the background of the war experience. The Second World War had demonstrated, once again, the importance of research for society and the fast-growing need for scientific knowledge. During the war, scientists and engineers had found that the search for technical innovation in the service of national defence spawned new questions and new problems for the natural sciences, the implication of which was long-term research. Given the immense expectations concerning immediate results within the context of warfare, some scientists feared that researchers would no longer be able to meet the demand of new knowledge for technical development (Simons 1943: 391). Despite the achievements made during the war, researchers warned of an exhaustion and future shortage of scientific knowledge: only by exploiting existing knowledge, they claimed, had it been possible to invent penicillin and radar, two of research’s major wartime success stories. In other words, there was a fear that the equilibrium between the production of scientific knowledge and its application would be disturbed (Bush 1945: 5, 8). The argument of knowledge sustainability thus became also important within the US community of scientists facing the war-time conditions of research.
This scarcity anxiety also applied to personnel resources in science (Barton and Burnham 1943: 176; H. S. Taylor 1944: 250). Bush’s report criticized the fact that, due to radical recruitment practices, the shortage of scientific personnel in the US was greater than in other countries (Bush 1945: 19). Bush’s colleagues, such as the Nobel Prize winner Arthur H. Compton, believed that the training situation and the support afforded to fundamental researchFootnote 14 at the universities were even worse in the US than in Germany (A. H. Compton 1945: 208). A lack of scientifically trained researchers also posed a problem for science-based industry. Thus the four committees suggested programmes for fostering scientific talent that included the generation in uniform returning from the war, particularly through doctoral fellowships for basic research.
In spite of this crisis and the discourse of epistemic and personnel shortage, wartime research efforts had, after all, strengthened the position of science in society. As the US government had spent more money on science throughout the course of the Second World War than ever before (Bush 1945: 82), scientists had a particular interest in perpetuating this federal commitment to science in peacetime. Since the US were traditionally characterized by less state intervention and a scientific infrastructure based largely on philanthropy and private donations, the federal support for academic research and training had been much lower than in Germany or in other European countries. It thus became necessary to legitimize the regular government funding envisioned through science’s role in the overall welfare of the nation. The Bush report justified the government’s obligation to support basic research in three ways. Firstly, medical research would improve public health. Secondly, research would advance the overall public welfare, which was almost synonymous with economic growth and job security due to innovations and new products. And finally, long-term civilian research promised to give the US a technological edge in armaments which was supposed to guarantee national security. Only then did basic research become a real keyword in research funding. And the metaphor of “basic” did the trick; by laying the basics for all kinds of future benefits, the federal government financed basic research as for the common good.
Bush’s proposal also reacted to the organizational conditions of wartime research, in particular with regard to security restrictions. The problem of secrecy policy had already been discussed openly during the war (K. T. Compton 1942: 28). Bush’s report called for the prompt release of classified research after the war. This request also involved a secrecy strategy in which projects were split up into small, isolated research groups, each of which worked on a specialised problem without the opportunity for any kind of exchange between them.Footnote 15 It is worth mentioning that the work on these specialized problems within isolated research groups was sometimes denoted as fundamental or basic research during the war (Simons 1943: 392), which indicates that Bush’s use of the term deviated from the former understanding. In order to near the ideal of open science once again, Bush believed that the federal government was also obliged to encourage publication, international communication, and cooperation following the war. In general, the report restricted the role of federal science policy to financial support and the provision of coordinating infrastructure (Bush 1945: 22–24). Bush sought to prevent the government and the military from continuing to pursue the managerial approach to science policy they had applied in wartime. Bush criticized the military leadership for being too narrow-minded, a characteristic that did not fit with his understanding of the speculative and multidimensional nature of research (Reingold 1987: 338–341). Failed attempts to establish federal research funding had already demonstrated that the majority of the scientific community disapproved of any governmental intervention in science (Geiger 1986: 255).
Other scientists shared with Bush the rising concerns over free scientific exchange toward the end of the war (H. S. Taylor 1944: 255; Jewett 1944: 3), but Bush’s report was the first to link the relatively new notion of basic research with an institutional guarantee of scientific autonomy in such a close fashion. This also included his contrasting juxtaposition of basic research with applied research and development. By then, applied research had not been an antonym to basic research. Basic research thus not only meant that science should be freed from the burden of high expectations tied to immediately exploitable results; it also entailed the freedom of both inquiry and scientific communication. The different agendas and arguments – the strengthening of US universities as research and training institutions, the switch from war to peace, and attracting federal support for science in the name of national welfare – converged in the report’s recommendation to enhance the universities and non-profit research institutions as centres of basic research.
Following the release of the report, US scientists, politicians, and industry representatives entered into controversial discussions on various aspects of Bush’s proposals, which delayed the establishment of the National Science Foundation for nearly five years. The patent issue, the suggestion that the social sciences be excluded from federal support, the uneven distribution of excellent research universities in the individual states coupled with the corresponding problem of how to fairly allocate federal funding, and, finally, the envisioned scientific expertocracy within the federal foundation proved to be particularly delicate subjects. Bush’s proposal faced opposition, in particular from the military, liberal and democrat activists, and even from scientific colleagues. At the universities, which stood to benefit most from the funding, some scientists considered the plea for basic research as restricting their funding and research habits, which included contract research for industry or the army. There is no need to go into the details of this debate here since a mass of literature has already revealed these conflicting institutional interests and the political dimension of the controversy on science policy in the early years following the Second World War (Kevles 1977; Reingold 1987; Owens 1994; Zachary 1997: 218–239, 249–260; Guston 2000; Dennis 2004). Most interpretations allude to Bush’s political conservatism aiming at the restoration of the pre-war political order. More generally speaking, studies on post-war research policy have so far presented a mainly political reading of these debates, which essentially revolved around the issue of more or of less intervention of the federal government into research. Even Roger Pielke’s (2012) current interpretation confines the concept basic research to this political dimension: in his view, the symbolic capacity of the term accommodated the conflicting parties, striving for the organization of science by the federal government on the one side and the autonomous organization of research by scientists on the other side, by promising potential utility.
What this analysis can add to the previous literature is a more nuanced interpretation of the conflicts within the scientific community. I argue that the scientific controversy over Bush’s “Endless frontier” partly stemmed from differences or even misunderstandings in the semantics of basic research. Although Bush developed the concept from the common discourse on knowledge sustainability, he added new semantic dimensions that had to meet multiple requirements of a new funding programme. In what follows, I demonstrate how the various problems in research organization and the overall political climate during the Cold-War period were turning this sustainability discourse by and by into a purity discourse.
Bush’s Definition of Basic Research: The Beginning of a History of Misconceptions?
Bush’s report marked a semantic shift in basic research that made a clear break with existing practices and notions in order to reorganize research in the post-war period. His specific use of the concept of basic research thus gave rise to misunderstandings and confusion. Moreover, the history of basic research in the second half of the 20th century has been characterized, in part, by these misunderstandings, which in the long run evoked anachronisms over which science and technology studies are still puzzling today. Bush’s short definition of basic research as “research performed without thought of practical ends” (Bush 1945: 13), still singled out by most studies (Stokes 1997: 116; Godin 2005b: 265; Popp Berman 2012: 21), definitely contradicted the original understanding of basic/fundamental research in the context of application. Even more so, this reduction fails to represent the conceptual range of basic research in the report and the wider debates that took place right after the war.
Bush’s definitions of research, science, and applied science confused his peers and even one of his closest companions James Conant, who reflected critically on the new conceptual boundaries (Conant 1948). Representatives of national or military laboratories felt particularly compelled to argue against an institutional separation of basic and applied research. A member of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, for instance, argued that “the naval laboratory programmes make it necessary for us to carry on basic research in certain parts of certain fields simply because no other agency is interested in, or has the facilities for, doing this work” (Bennett 1946). Bush’s peers in engineering were certainly confused by the different ways of denoting basic research. Universities specializing in the applied sciences and engineering, such as the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), understood basic research – inseparable from the overall pragmatic goal of inventing new technology – as an integral part of modern engineering (DuBridge 1959: 109–110).
Following the publication of “Endless frontier”, scientists and other policymakers tried to differentiate and redefine the concept of basic research, which indicates that Bush’s understanding of basic research was not taken for granted and that researchers struggled with it because it did not fit the existing research landscape. John Steelman, science adviser to President Truman, for instance, divided basic research into two subcategories: firstly, fundamental research defined as “theoretical analysis … directed to the extension of knowledge of the general principles governing natural or social phenomena”, and secondly, “background research” defined as “systematic observation, collection, organization, and presentation of facts using known principles to reach objectives that are clearly defined before the research is undertaken to provide a foundation for subsequent research” (Steelman 1947a: 6). Others tried to introduce a distinction between “fundamental research, which leads to an understanding of the laws of nature, the discovery of new facts and laws, and the theoretical development”, and “basic research as it applies to industrial or military development involving basic studies of the fruits of fundamental work to determine their potentialities antecedent to application” (Leob 1946: 540). An industrial researcher defined basic research as an intermediate category, which he located between pure research as “inquiry after knowledge for its own sake” and applied research as “the investigation carried out in response to immediate, direct, and obvious needs” (Spaght 1955: 785). The gradual emergence of new variations such as “mission-oriented basic research” indicates, at least, that the criterion of intention, whether utility-oriented or not, became problematic in the long run (Tuve 1959: 174; Kistiakowsky 1966: 18).
While all these redefinitions can be interpreted as a claim to reintegrate application goals into the concept of basic research, Bush himself actually did not exclude the idea of mission-oriented research. Nathan Reingold sees “the pursuit of new knowledge” – and not the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake – as the real core of Bush’s notion of basic research. Reingold further refines his interpretation by quoting Bush’s argument that “there is no specification as to whether the knowledge is or is not of direct utility” (Reingold 1987: 305). That sheds a very different light on the story of basic research. The importance of new scientific knowledge becomes even clearer if we take into account Bush’s metaphor of “the endless frontier”, which emphasized the cutting-edge role of scientific research. It thus placed scientific problems at the border of the unknown, reflecting the uncertainty of scientific outcomes and their long lead time in a world increasingly reliant upon scientific progress. Not least, Bush’s outline for a federal funding programme entailed financial support for basic research (long-range scientific research) on military matters.
Nevertheless, some of Bush’s contemporaries interpreted the report as an attempt to return to the old intrinsic ideal of pure science. They criticized the report for favouring a selfish notion of scientific autonomy that did not respond to any societal or economic needs (Shepard 1946).Footnote 16 My analysis thus far reveals that the discursive strategy of basic research initially aimed to acquire regular financial support from the government by promising utility in spite of the uncertainty of scientific research. This happened to conform to the interests of the scientific profession, so long as this support did not affect the ideal of open science. In the long run, however, the allegation of a return to an ancient pure-science ideal proved to be true. As the promotion of basic research continued, the sustainability discourse was transformed into a purity discourse, which revealed aspects of a past notion of science deemed to have been superseded in the 20th century.
After having become the spearhead of scientific endeavour, surprisingly enough American researchers looked back towards continental Europe. Post-war proposals for higher education in the US idealized the European university system and its humanistic tradition by associating it with democracy (Bender 1997: 4–5). The old model of the European research university and its success story in basic disciplines such as physics and chemistry became a role model. According to Bush’s report, the arguments for reinvigorating the university within an increasingly pluralistic research landscape were twofold: immense need for scientifically trained researchers and the demand for scientific autonomy.
American scientists had repeatedly commented on the short-sighted focus of armaments research and on the threat Hitler’s regime implied for the freedom of science, presenting the liberal democratic order as the only safeguard for the fundamental principles of science (Fosdick 1934: 380; Simons 1943: 392; Goudsmit 1947: XI). The debates on lessons to be drawn from the war experience, however, demonstrate that American scientists were chiefly worried about the threat to scientific freedom with regard to their own national conditions (H. S. Taylor 1944: 255; Goudsmit 1947: 232–246). Bush’s report blamed previous federal policy – from the Morill Land-Grant Colleges Act to the more recent practice of contract research – for being primarily interested in immediate benefits. The report argued that, due to an alleged inclination towards more utility-based research, the American nation depended entirely on the European production of new scientific knowledge (Bush 1945: 2; see also Astin 1959: 146–147).
By reproaching the societal and governmental focus on the utility of science, Bush’s sustainability argument was just about to tilt over towards the purity ideal of science. This explains why some scientists initially reclaimed the application aspect of research. The related aspect of academic autonomy, however, met with the approval of most scientists. Aside from the politicians supporting a science policy agency like the Democrat Harley M. Kilgore (1945: 636), only a few scientists argued frankly against the anxiety about governmental interference by pointing out that the increasing social and economic demand for scientific research and the necessary political coordination of research in response to these needs were facts which scientists in the 20th century had to accept (Dunn 1945). Although the final establishment of the National Science Foundation turned out to be a compromise for all parties having negotiated this new form of federal science funding, Bush’s altered definition of basic research, in the end, became accepted.
At the end of the 1950s, after the National Science Foundation had been operating for several years, scientists continued to criticize the low federal base rate for basic research in comparison to that of contract research in the Department of Defense, which was twice as high (Elvehjem 1959: 94; Waterman 1959: 26–27). Some deployed the sophisticated argument that many projects were not truly basic research, but actually mission-directed basic research. In fact, the Korean War had meanwhile intensified the Cold War conflict and the Soviet’s launch of the Sputnik satellite turned the ideological competition between West and East into a science and technology race (Tuve 1959: 173–176). As a consequence, basic research stood primarily for federally financed academic research – with or without any concept of practical use.
From the outset, the various drafts of the documents formally establishing the National Science Foundation included fellowships for graduates and junior scientists, so that the concept of basic research was closely linked to training scientific talent (Steelman 1947b: 29–30). From the late 19th century onwards, the modern research university inevitably moved further and further away from the traditional concept of a university as a specialized institution of higher education that excluded any notion of material benefit or practical aims. Yet the post-war debate on support for basic research led to a new version of the old boundary discourse of pure versus applied and theory versus practice. At a major symposium on basic research in May 1959, one representative of a private technical university reasoned that the
most difficult questions arise as to what is fundamental research, what is practical development, and which projects could be more appropriately done in commercial laboratories. … One useful criterion which helps many decisions in this field is that to be acceptable in any area a research program must be one which is consistent with and contributes to the educational program. This means it must be one in which graduate students can participate. This means, among other things, it must not be ‘classified’, either for reasons of trade secrecy or military security. (DuBridge 1959: 109–110)
In the discourse among academic teachers, the ideal of training “good scientists” was not compatible with military or other contract research (Elvehjem 1959: 94). Even engineering sciences felt compelled to adopt pure-science ideals whereby profit and research projects with self-serving interests should be taboo in institutions of higher education as long as they were part of scientific training. Given the fact that the growing number of military-related research projects at universities during the Cold-War years often included doctoral students, these statements certainly did not mirror the actual practice in the higher education of engineers (Dennis 1994). They rather seem to reflect the increasing uneasiness with the security guidelines related to contract research for the armed forces and the increasing number of military-related research projects.
The call for new knowledge through basic research in the post-war era also reached industry. Big companies such as DuPont or the Bell Telephone Company, which could afford their own well-equipped laboratories, intended to expand their participation in basic research after the war had ended (Fisk 1959). However, since economic rationales entailed selecting projects that were most likely to lead to innovation, these companies welcomed the idea of the federal government funding riskier projects to be carried out at the universities (Greenewalt 1959: 130). After all, failures and deadlocks – all more or less inevitable parts of the scientific production of knowledge – would cause costs they wanted to avoid. Furthermore, industry representatives appreciated federal support for training the future generation of researchers they needed. This division of labour was financially promising for companies as “a technological savings account” (Greenewalt 1959).
While the amount of research carried out in direct response to economic and military demands had increased tremendously since the Korean War (Killian 1959a: 122), the university was meant to become a sort of reservation for long-term basic research within a changing research landscape. Academic freedom in the second half of the 20th century largely sought to liberate science from over-the-top societal expectations. Protecting scientific research “from the insistent demands of applied research” became a central argument deployed by scientists as well as industry and politics (Weaver 1959: XIV; see also Greenewalt 1959: 128). Yet what was initially intended to protect scarce knowledge resources could, in the long run, transform into an ideal of purity. The university was granted the status of a reservation in the midst of a rapidly changing research landscape in order to protect science against excessive expectations and thus guarantee the open development of scientific knowledge. With the status of reservation, however, also came the danger that research conditions be artificially conserved, making it difficult to respond to changes in scientific practices.
The Revival of 19th-Century Epistemic Norms and Virtues
The shift from a discourse of knowledge sustainability to a discourse of purity affected the epistemic concepts of science in particular and, in so doing, appeared to hark back to ideas coursing in the 18th and 19th centuries. First and foremost, this shift concerned the relationship between the natural sciences and technology. Although Vannevar Bush himself dealt with basic questions in mathematics – a central basic discipline in engineering – as well as with construction design in his own research, his proposals ended up reviving the old distinction between nature and technology because they made the distinction between engineering, on the one hand, and the natural sciences, on the other.
Historians have explained this distinctive position on the natural sciences with Bush’s personal concepts of administration and his ideas about achieving excellence in science through specialized researchers, based, of course, on the premise that the rationale of open science would guarantee the unhindered diffusion of knowledge for the benefit of technical progress (Reingold 1987: 306–307). This relapse into outdated concepts of science, however, cannot be reduced to the personal preferences of Vannevar Bush. It should instead be seen as a broader academic phenomenon, which began as a move to counter the increasing demand on science for immediate benefits that reached its height during the Second World War, before finally turning into a political programme in the West, nestled within the ideological competition of the Cold War.
In order to protect basic research in the natural sciences, academic experts wanted these disciplines to steer clear of any kind of technical development. As Alan T. Waterman (1959: 28) proclaimed in 1959, “the growing applications of physics, chemistry, and mathematics should be shifted to engineering departments and kept out of the regular science departments”. In other words, from the point of view of the natural sciences, applied research primarily meant research that sought to yield future technology.
An oceanographical study carried out within the context of naval research in the late 1940s and early 1950s reconfirms this one-dimensional understanding of applied research in contrast to basic research. The US Office of Naval Research was a staunch supporter of basic research in oceanography, yet the question of secrecy revealed that the Navy and scientists differed in their classification of basic and applied research and in their notion of utility. Oceanographers defined their investigations of the topographical features or meteorological conditions of the ocean as basic research as long as it did not expressly serve the development of technology destined for use by the Navy. The Navy, however, developed “a more sophisticated definition of basic research that would take its operational nature into account” and demonstrated strategic utility of geography for military purposes (Hamblin 2002: 27).
This purification of the natural sciences even affected the existing research vocabulary. Science policy experts tried to find new labels for research fields in engineering formerly classified as fundamental or basic research. The term “analytical engineering” is a good example of this renaming practice (Killian 1959a: 122). Moreover, in the debates revolving around basic research in the post-war era, the whole attitude towards technology appeared to become more ambivalent. In the 1950s, the National Science Foundation still justified the support for basic research primarily by the goal of enhancing technical progress. At the same time, it became ever more common for statements on science to conclude with a declaration bearing the motivating force behind scientific endeavour; the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and the quest for truth became the appendix of federal science policy (Waterman 1959: 37–40; Astin 1959: 154).
Researchers in innovation studies have associated post-war research policy with the “linear model”, that is with a linear trajectory from basic research in the natural sciences to technology (Edgerton 2004). Implicit in the new policy of basic research was a renaissance of the older epistemic notion of an asymmetry of knowledge and, by association, the scientific preference for research led by theoretical questions. Particular support for basic research in the natural sciences was grounded in the hope that a few basic discoveries would be sufficient to significantly broaden the potential for technological application (Elvehjem 1959: 98). In the process of striving for the endless frontier of the unknown, the idea of major theories in the natural sciences came to be the ultimate driving force of scientific progress and thus a further argument for supporting basic research.
Even representatives of industrial research endorsed the orientation of academic research towards theory in order to provide mutual benefit:
[T]he existence of even a crude and preliminary physical theory and the heeding of it in the expectations and patterns of operation of scientific work would permit coupling of the individual, uncommitted, undirected researcher to the general objectives of economic and social programs. … In the still regrettably small list of findings from basic scientific research which have been quickly and directly connected with large advances in technology and useful operations are several important examples. In these, the really new idea came out because a unifying theory had displaced the true possibilities – the wide range of means rather than simply the ends themselves … (W. O. Baker 1959: 54).
This hierarchical and linear notion of knowledge production contrasted with a more dynamic understanding of the relationship between fundamentally theoretical questions and approaches that started out from a concrete problem of application. Although the professional self-image of academic superiority certainly continued to have an effect on epistemic ideas and norms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shifting research practices had already begun breaking up this static epistemic model. As the special support of basic research and its distinctive position within the different research activities was beyond dispute in the late 1950s, representatives of industrial research or national laboratories only casually mentioned the mutual reinforcement of theoretical and application problems they encountered (Astin 1959: 145, 151; Fisk 1959: 160–161).
Debates on basic research eventually revealed another old epistemic ideal referring to the intellectual qualities of researchers and to research conditions that encouraged scientific creativity. New (federal) support for basic research initially focused on individual researchers in order to foster “the development of the individual scientist” (Waterman 1959: 34; see also Weaver 1959: XI; Greenewalt 1959: 128–131; Morison 1959: 230). Experts esteemed individual creativity as the main property of outstanding scientists, enabling them to move forward into the unknown. The free flow of unconstrained intellectual creativity was thus defined as basic research. Not least, the financial relief stemming from regular federal funding was well received as a guarantee of intellectual freedom (Tuve 1959).
This particular position was backed up by the revival of old academic virtues. “[T]ruly ‘basic research’ was driven by a passionate love for knowledge. Basic research thus meant ‘support for ideas’ in the first place” (Tuve 1959: 174, 175; see also Waterman 1959). This definition of basic research tended to be averse to technology. Furthermore, the hierarchy of basic and applied research implied the moral superiority of academic research over benefit-oriented industrial research, even on the personal level of researchers (Elvehjem 1959: 94–96). In the end, the epistemic virtue of disinterestedness – according to Robert Merton one of four imperatives of modern science – got mixed up with social and moral values.
This deep appreciation of individuality was partly a reaction to the growing experience of scientific teamwork, which had become common within large military or industrial research projects. Individual creativity contrasted with the conservative atmosphere of research groups, which tended to object to fresh, radical ideas (Waterman 1959: 30; Tuve 1959: 176). Even those involved in industrial research highlighted the advantage of academic research because companies were only able to offer limited space for the individuality of their researchers. Furthermore, the freedom of investigation was supposed to be a special incentive for academic research – an incentive that had to compete with the high salaries and the technologically well-equipped laboratories in industrial research (Elvehjem 1959: 96–97). Praise for individuality in science, however, derived partly from the ideological value of individualism in Western civilization. The first director of the National Science Foundation, Alan T. Waterman, put it like this: “Surely one of the great assets of democracy is the encouragement of individual initiative” (Waterman 1959: 25).
Democracy at Risk: The Ideological Role of Basic Research in the Cold-War US
The ideological potential of the basic-research concept contributed significantly to the shift from a discourse of sustainability to one of purity. Politicians, for example US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, translated the new science policy directly into political slogans such as “Science: Handmaiden of Freedom” (Eisenhower 1959). Politicians still placed great hopes and expectations on science as the pacemaker of technical progress, capable of securing national security, national welfare, and prosperity. At the same time, their support of basic research enabled politicians to praise academic freedom as an overall value of liberal Western society. In addition to this, federal funding for basic research, defined as support for individual initiative and creativity, symbolized the individualism within democracy (Waterman 1959: 25). As a collective symbol bridging the gap between scientific and public discourse by the polysemy of metaphors, basic research offered a true ideological surplus. Politicians further contrasted the “limited or local application” within mission-directed research with the universality of basic research designed to “benefit all mankind” (Eisenhower 1959: 137). Leading the technological race with the launch of its Sputnik satellite, the Soviet Union then stood for an application-oriented understanding of science in the service of communist goals, whereas the Western argument pertaining to the universality and openness of basic research claimed ethical superiority.
During the 1950s, this high praise for free basic research stood in opposition to the high percentage of projects funded by the military and the increased demands for secrecy imposed on large areas of research in physics or other fields relevant to military projects by US security policy. It is telling that, in 1951, Alan Waterman, first director of the National Science Foundation and former technical director of the Office of Naval Research, emphasized the role of science in the situation of national emergency in the wake of conflict with the communist world; in spite of the National Science Foundation’s basic research programme, he underlined the need for science to focus on urgent application problems (Waterman 1951). According to the literature (Forman 1987; Westwick 2000), patriotic mobilization among scientists was still high. Many classified their research voluntarily, or adjusted to political pressure for security by compartmentalizing research and forming classified communities. Although these strategies were supposed to guarantee as much scientific exchange as possible, secrecy meant that research largely took place within a national context.
Moreover, the debates in Science during the 1950s demonstrate that the secrecy policy and the effects of a dominating military grip on science gave more and more cause for concern within the scientific community. Scientists criticized the idea that the military had a “sophisticated understanding of the needs of basic research”, arguing, moreover, that “those branches of pure science that lack military appeal are as badly off financially as they ever were” (Phillips 1952: 440). In the early 1960s, military or military-related institutes, such as the Office of Naval Research, were still financing most academic research, in particular at prestigious universities (Leslie 1993). Against this backdrop, the political reading of basic research was not merely an aspect of portraying the US as a liberal society to the outside world. The debate on basic research also reflected, more controversially, the internal effects of the cold war on research. The debate was embedded in a more general intellectual discourse on the consequences of the predominant security policy and the growing power of the military for democratic society (see, for example, Shils 1956: 176–191).
Eisenhower’s statements demonstrated this growing ambiguity. In his well-known “Farewell Address” from 1961, the departing president, former supreme allied commander and president of Columbia University, warned against the growing power of a “military-industrial complex”:
[W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. (Eisenhower 2003: 414)
Eisenhower construed financially attractive contract research as a threat to the academic “fountainhead of free ideas”. More importantly, he warned against the menace to public policy and civil society of a new “scientific-technological elite” (Eisenhower 2003: 414–415). Although Robert Merton had already stressed the similarity or affinity between open science and Western democracy, in the late 1950s and early 1960s Eisenhower and other politicians identified science as a threat to democracy when a close connection between science, the military, and the economy remained intact (Wang 1999b).
Along with the attribute of universality, another of Merton’s four imperatives of modern science, the notion of truth also gained importance in this ideological discourse (Waterman 1959: 39). The ideal of truth had already been part of the ideological fight against fascism during the Second World War when researchers emphasized that science offered more than technical applications: “American science therefore has an especial duty to keep aflame the torch of free research for truth, which is dimmed or gone out in so many lands” (Blakeslee 1940: 592).
As the natural sciences had needed a long time to set themselves apart from an understanding of science dominated by natural philosophy, the revitalization of the idea of universal truth appears anachronistic. In the 19th century, the natural sciences developed a mechanical and structural understanding of objectivity based on methodological processes that sometimes even stood in contradiction to the quest for truth and certitude (Daston 2000: 32–34). At the beginning of the 20th century, the quest for truth had something old-fashioned about it in a scientific era in which research was constantly doing away with established certainties.
Coping with Ethical Dilemmas in the Cold-War Era
During the Cold War, however, the attributes of truth and universality were revitalized and became part of an effort to present science as a politically and ideologically independent authority in society. From the viewpoint of politics, science was able to act as a neutral authority upon which decision-makers could rely (Price 1962: 1105). Scientists themselves praised the idea “that science has something more valuable than its material gifts to offer. … Science can have no dogma, no arbitrary authority, no ‘party line’” (Sinnott 1950: 125). Scientific virtues of “objectivity, tolerance, reluctance to distort or suppress evidence, and willingness to accept sound logic and demonstrable fact” were transformed into political virtues (W. P. Taylor 1953: 449). At the same time, however, the position of impartial experts tended to be morally overloaded when scientists were meant to become missionaries of “reason and good will” in the fight against “falsehood and hate” (Sinnott 1950: 126; see also Szent-Györgyi 1957; Rapoport 1957; Weaver 1961: 259). In fact, the democratic framing of basic research and the revival of knowledge ideals in the tradition of Humanism led to a politicization of science and, as a result, basic research itself became part of ideology, namely Western ideology.
Historians have already pointed to the various ideological dimensions of science in the post-war period (Wang 1999a; Ash 2006: 30; for the social sciences and humanities, see Bender 1997). Some scholars from science and technology studies blame Robert Merton’s comparison of science in democracy with science in fascist and communist regimes for the misconception of scientific ideals such as autonomy and universality, a misconception that they have been trying to correct ever since (see the overview in Daston 2000: 18–20). But the societal, political, and ethical implications of the basic-research concept were embraced by the scientific community, even without sociological mediation.
After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the role of science in society certainly became more contradictory (Conant 1961: 6–13). While researchers had wholeheartedly praised the salutary benefits of science before Hiroshima (A. H. Compton 1940: 56), contemporaries noted afterwards that the “atom bomb once and for all explodes the ‘neutrality’ of technology” (Shepard 1946: 66). The promise of progress was only one side of the coin. Scientists became increasingly aware of the burden of responsibility in their own research. Some of them hoped to avoid this problem by pursuing more theoretical research topics. Others tried to take political action, such as the atomic physicists’ movement, which fought for civilian use of scientific knowledge and technological invention. But the anxious atmosphere during the Cold War period – anti-communist harassment and the increasing public fear of a new scientific-technological elite – aggravated the ethical dilemmas of post-war science.
A statement made by the physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer, a leading figure in the Manhattan Project, about the debate on basic research indicates scientists’ uneasiness when they were faced with these dilemmas: “The argument that the quest for new knowledge, which is basic science, is ennobling, and the argument that the quest for new knowledge produces new knowledge which is useful to technology and thus to practice, are disturbingly separate and unrelated arguments. … Yet science and technology are symbiotic” (Oppenheimer 1959: 9; for a similar argument, see W. O. Baker 1959: 43–47). Oppenheimer seemed to suspect that the debate on basic research simply reflected these modern dilemmas. It is striking, but also telling, that he tried hard to avoid the dualistic semantics that characterized science policy at this time. Oppenheimer explicitly raised the political problems brought about by the powerful scientific culture of the 20th century. Taking the growing criticism toward scientists into account, the physicist believed that making the public understand research goals had become difficult. While the impact of science on society had increased tremendously, the fast growth of scientific knowledge and technical innovations made it hard for laypersons to judge issues in science policy. Oppenheimer feared that this asymmetry of knowledge between experts and the lay public weakened democratic political decision-making (Oppenheimer 1959: 12–13).Footnote 17
The charges brought by the McCarthy Committee in 1954 against Oppenheimer relating to his opposition to the hydrogen bomb illustrate that scientists who were willing to assume responsibility for their research by taking political action had to learn the hard way that there was little room in the political climate of the Cold War to deal openly with these dilemmas of modern science (Bird and Sherwin 2005: 462–550). With regard to scientists of the progressive left advocating a more utility-oriented notion of science, Jessica Wang notes that “[a]lthough their views on the structure of postwar science were not directly responsible for their political difficulties in every case, these scientists and others who embraced a liberal-left politics of science were likely to hold other views that made them vulnerable to anti-communist attacks and excluded them from political influence” (Wang 1995: 166). In the mid 1950s, the National Science Foundation and the Academy of Science included the criterion of national loyalty into their peer-review system for unclassified research. Both organisations thus sought to avoid allegations of supporting researchers who were suspected of sympathising with communist ideas (Waterman 1960: 127; Committee on Loyalty in Relation to Government Support of Unclassified Research 1956).
The question of loyalty arose especially when it came to discussing technological application, as an official statement by the President of Associated Universities addressed to the Committee on Government Operations confirmed:
If a scientist expresses a strong view on some technological matter that may be contrary to the application of technology to current or to subsequent policy, he is open to the accusation of taking this view with the intent of deliberate subversion. … Moreover, secrecy prevents him from stating the essential technical grounds on which his view is based. Therefore, in the simple process of doing his job for his country well, he is open to damaging criticism against which he is permitted to produce little defense. (Berkner 1956: 784–785)
Given this pitfall, the discursive separation of science from technology provided a strategy to avoid the risk of being forced to go “politicking”, which gradually came to be considered as the “disease” of the project research dominating American universities at that time (Gates 1958: 234).
In this particular situation (the ethical dilemmas of the techno-scientific world, the fragile relationship between science and the public in democracy, and the ideological antagonism during the Cold War), the dissociation of the natural sciences from applied research and any practical application of scientific knowledge was thought to offer a strategy of individual, professional, and institutional relief: Firstly, a strategy that avoids assuming ethical responsibility for the changes caused by scientific knowledge. Secondly, a sort of self-protecting strategy that sought to avoid the direct line of political fire in a society entirely concerned with national security, the latter which produced an atmosphere of suspicion. And thirdly, a strategy of political neutrality and independence from any self-serving interests as a means of guaranteeing the institutional freedom of academic science and a self-regulating scientific community which, from a scientific point of view, was best capable of dealing with the open and often unpredictable process of epistemic progress. The scientific community retreated into a “satisfactory philosophy of ignorance”; as long as science was defined as institutionalized scepticism, it was still possible to maintain the belief in science or scientific knowledge as an indispensable value of modern civilization (Feynman 1955: 15).
Conflicting Promises and Their Effects on the Public Image of Science
This neutral position secured the federal funding of research at universities in the US – something the universities had longed for since the 1920s. In return, academic researchers promised simply that science would lay the foundation for progress. They also offered their expertise to politics, thus acting as an independent authority over truth in a pluralistic, democratic society. The certainty academic scientists offered appeared to be especially welcome at a time in which society was driven by great anxiety. With regard to the outside image of the US during the Cold War, the universities’ role as reservations devoted to autonomous science served as a symbol for Western liberal society in the tradition of Humanism amid the great ideological competition, while simultaneously providing fig-leaf camouflage for the technology-based arms race. The post-war understanding of scientific autonomy was, in fact, the result of a broad process of the politicization of science arising from the growing importance of scientific knowledge for society.
Since there is, by definition, no clear solution for dilemmas, the strategy of basic research inevitably caused problems for the relationship between science and the public in the long run. Articles on this relationship and on topics such as the responsibility of science in the late 1950s show that public mediation between the needs of science and those of society became increasingly problematic (Killian 1959b: 136; Sayre 1961; Price 1962). According to Bender, this understanding of the autonomy of science, in particular the position of elitist experts and how they neglected their responsibilities, alienated science from society, evoked the impression of an academic ivory tower, and, finally, ended in federal budget cuts for academic research (Bender 1997: 8–12).
Moreover, I argue that the simple promises of truth and progress scientists had avowed to society covered the complexity and uncertainty of research dynamics as well as the tentativeness of contested scientific knowledge. Moreover, the authority of scientific objectivity and methodologically certified knowledge revealed its limitations during political negotiations on values and societal goals; the position of moral neutrality might bewilder the public. It could thus lead to disappointment, misunderstanding, and even to the loss of science’s integrity in the public sphere. Furthermore, the increasing interlocking of technology and the natural sciences was also hidden behind praise for basic research. Since technological innovation had become part of the natural sciences, questions of risk and utility had inevitably arisen and transformed themselves into political and ethical issues: Who will profit from the results? How do we manage risks?
Only few researchers at that time anticipated that the excessive expectations of and contradictory demands on research might turn the public against science (W. O. Baker 1959: 48; Dryden 1954). The shift from a discourse of knowledge sustainability to one of purity meant that the concept of basic research itself sent contradictory signals to the public: “The uneasiness of scientists on this score is revealed by the observation that, whereas they claim among themselves that their primary interest is in the conceptual, not in the applied, aspects of science, in public they justify basic research by asserting that it always leads to ‘useful’ results” (Dubos 1961: 1209; see also Daniels 1967).
In fact, the concept of basic research and the underlying linear model of innovation had already come under attack in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The long-term and highly speculative nature of scientific research was difficult to communicate to a public that expected economic prosperity and welfare here and now. Society’s disappointment backfired on the scientific community and stimulated a debate about the appropriateness of dissociating basic from applied research (Abelson 1966; Reagan 1967). Yet this crisis is another chapter in the conceptual history of basic research and goes beyond the scope of this paper.
Despite recurring crises, the concept of basic research functioned as a collective symbol for science policy over quite a long period of time. Moreover, the semantics of the new US science policy spread across the entire Western world. Ever since the National Science Foundation established a periodical survey of overall research in the US based on the categories basic research, applied research, and development (the final stage of innovation, when technologies or ideas are turned into marketable products), nearly all countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted this classification (OECD 1976). Basic research and its corresponding categories were converted into enduring statistical realities that played a crucial role in budget planning within industry and in funding allocation undertaken by government bodies (Godin 2005b).
Fundamental Research in the Federal Republic of Germany: A Brief Overview
In the Federal Republic of Germany (hereafter referred to as West Germany), fundamental research also became a key concept in science policy. The impact of the American role model on West Germany is quite obvious. Within the context of re-education and development programmes, those representing US science promoted their concept of science in democracy with its special focus on fundamental research in West Germany (Conant 1953; Bush 1954). However, the national characteristics of the German research landscape coupled with the historical burden of the Nazi past meant that the way fundamental research and its corresponding discourses were implemented differed to a certain degree from the American experience. I will briefly mention some of these Germany-specific characteristics in order to maintain a balance between the two national perspectives.
After the Second World War, the Allies assumed control of science in Germany with the intention of suppressing all further research activities relevant to the development of armaments. Allied Control Council Acts and the ensuing executive regulations specified by each of the Western occupation zones forbade any fundamental or applied scientific research with military relevance (Frowein 1949, 1950).Footnote 18 It is remarkable that the crucial criterion for prohibition was the military potential of research projects rather than the difference between fundamental and applied research.
Similar to the American reaction to Bush’s proposals, discussions within the German scientific community over the dissociation of basic from applied research were quite controversial in the initial post-war years. Those from engineering or the applied sciences were particularly confused by this distinction and felt insecure about their future position and status within academia (Vieweg 1950: 731–732; Sörensen 1952: 158). The creation of compounds such as “applied fundamental research” (angewandte Grundlagenforschung) was a further German strategy designed to overcome this confusion in engineering (Heiss 1950: 121, 127; Wever 1952: 1053).
In order to cope with the Nazi past, the concept of pure science was initially more attractive because of its moral connotation in the sense of innocence. Many scientists labelled their research activities during the Nazi period retrospectively as pure science in order to avoid being accused of complying with and supporting the former fascist regime (Mehrtens 1994). In general, the revival of ideals belonging to the 19th-century concept of pure science was more extensive than in the US. Reference to the Humanist notion of education became part of the programme to democratise society. This notion thus shaped the self-understanding of German universities, which culminated in a re-glorification of the Prussian university reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt, who had emphasized the educational function of science.Footnote 19 German professors embraced the older scientific ideal of truth-seeking as the ultimate motive for research.Footnote 20
Right after the war, German academics tried hard to avoid the impression that their research was driven by any political or economic interests. The US occupying forces certainly wanted to keep science at a great distance to politics, but they did not seek to suppress economically and technically promising research (Cassidy 1996: 200–206). In fact, the growing tension with the Soviet Union meant that the Marshall Plan’s aim was speedy economic recovery in both Germany and Western Europe. John Krige has already pointed out that the basic-research concept played a key role in reconstructing European science under “American hegemony”. Firstly, the concept was important for communicating the US financial support for the former wartime enemies towards the American public. Secondly, it transported the Western ideology and was therefore part of the envisioned democratization process in central Europe. Finally, the US promoted basic research as unclassified research in the allied countries in order to increase its stock of scientific knowledge and thus to secure the American technological leadership (Krige 2010).
The German discourse on the general role of science in society defined scientific knowledge primarily as a cultural good in order to strip off the Nazi past: science was given a religious appeal (Walden 1946; Rein 1946; Reppe 1950: 1; Erbe 1954). However, even scientists such as the physicist Otto Hahn, who argued strongly that research in the natural sciences should abstain from any economic or technological considerations, advocating instead that science ought to be driven by the thirst for knowledge, campaigned for research funding by highlighting examples of scientific discoveries that eventually led to successful products or innovative technology (Hahn 1949, 1954).
Overall, the German concept of fundamental research resembled the US one in many ways. It encompassed the idea of the long-term perspective and that of the scientific knowledge reservoir or resource, the demand for scientific talent, individual creativity in research, and the belief in disciplinary specialisation (see, for instance, Reppe 1950). Eventually, fundamental research also became the key concept in the public funding of research in West Germany. However, the Germans’ attempt to institutionally dissociate academic research from research promising primarily economic utility was much more radical than in the US. West Germany founded the German Research Foundation in order to fund academic research and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (Fraunhofer Society) as the funding body responsible for economically relevant research.
The German Research Foundation’s crucial criterion for defining fundamental research was the institutional autonomy of academic research. According to a number of historical studies, this particular focus on fundamental research implied a restoration of the power held by full professors (known in Germany as the Ordinariensystem). As the demands for the applied and the technical sciences were growing continually, in 1956, the German Research Foundation also established a special commission for funding applied research. However, this commission failed to gain importance as an instrument for promoting research in the technical sciences (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft 1956). Technical universities therefore had to look for financial support from another quarter. In the end, the ideal of fundamental research in West Germany seemed to slow down the institutional emancipation of technical colleges from universities. Furthermore, academic research lost contact with expensive, major scientific projects carried out in publicly funded research institutes (Orth 2011).
All in all, the shift from a discourse of sustainability to one of purity after the Second World War appears to have been a transnational process, although both the background and the intensity of the purity ideals in the US and in West Germany differed from one another. In both nations, the purity discourse implied a revival of scientific ideals dating back to the 19th century. West Germany adopted the American imperative of basic research, but German scientists referred more extensively to the Humanist tradition of academia because they had to dissociate themselves from their Nazi past. As universities were supposed to play an important role in Germany’s effort to progress towards democracy, academic science was defined by primarily educational ideals. The call for basic research after the Second World War in the US initially sought to maintain federal funding for academic research in order to enable scientific talent to flourish without it being subject to pressure from the expectation of benefit held by society. Basic research became a key concept in US federal science policy because the latter defined science as a common good with a long-term perspective. However, the fact that this key concept became crucial in the long run can be explained only by the fact that it functioned as a discursive strategy designed to cope with the political and ethical dilemmas of science during the Cold War.