The False Dichotomy: Scientific Creativity and Utility

Congress and the executive branch must change the way they make budget decisions to create a powerful new form of federal research.

The call by Gerald Holton and Gerhard Sonnert in the preceding article for government support for Jeffersonian research that is basic in nature but clearly linked to specific goals raises several practical questions. How might the institutions of government be expected to generate programs of Jeffersonian research? How might such programs be managed, and how might success and failure be assessed? Would the redirecting of a significant fraction of public research into this third channel attract political support, perhaps leading to more effective use of public resources as well as a broader consensus on research investments?

No one doubts that modern science and engineering radically expand humankind’s technological choices and can give us the knowledge with which to choose among them. But many politicians, listening to their taxpaying constituents, also feel it is the public’s right to know what the goals of the massive federal investments in research are. Some are vocally skeptical of large sums invested in basic science when the advocates of basic science insist that its outcomes cannot be predicted or values be assigned to the effort without a long passage of time.

Congress expects the managers of public science, whether in government or university laboratories, not only to articulate the goals of public investment but to measure progress toward those goals. These expectations of more explicit accountability by the publicly supported research community are embodied in the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which requires the sponsoring agencies to document that progress in their budget submissions to Congress.

Many scientists, on the other hand, are fearful that these expectations, however well-intentioned, will lead to micromanagement of research by the sponsoring agencies, suppressing the intellectual freedom so necessary to scientific creativity. Planning of scientific research, they say, implies the advance selection of strategies, thus foregoing the chance to discover new pathways that might offer far more rapid progress in the long run. The only way to insure a truly dynamic scientific enterprise, they say, is to leave the scientists free to choose the problems they want to explore, probing nature at every point where progress in understanding may be offered. The practical benefits that flow from basic research, they would argue, far exceed what even the most visionary managers of a utilitarian research policy could have produced.

Skeptics of this Newtonian view of public science (research in response to curiosity about the workings of nature, with no other pragmatic motivation) will acknowledge that some part of the public research effort, especially that associated with the postgraduate training of the next generation of scientists and engineers, must be driven by the insatiable curiosity of the best researchers. But the politicians tell us that the federal investment in science is too big and the pressures to spend the money on competing social or fiscal needs are too great to allow blind faith in the power of intellectual commitment to substitute for an accountable process based on clearly stated goals. Some members of Congress who make this argument, such as the late George Brown, Jr., can lay claim to being the best friends of science. Without the politician’s ability to explain to the voters why all this money is being spent, the support for science may shrink and the public and intellectual benefits be lost.

Scylla and Charybdis

Must the nation chose between these two views and the policies they imply? Are we faced with a Hobson’s choice between a withering vine of public support for a free and creative science that is seen by many as irrelevant to public needs and a bureaucratic array of agency-managed applied research, pressing incrementally toward public goals it hasn’t the imagination to reach? There is a third way, well known to the more visionary research managers in government, that deserves to comprise a much more substantial part of the public research investment than it does today. We do not have to settle for a dichotomy of Newtonian science and Baconian research (application of existing knowledge on behalf of a sponsor with a specified problem to solve). We can and should dedicate a significant part of our national scientific effort to creating the skills, capacity, and technical knowledge with which the entire scientific enterprise of the country can address the most important issues facing humankind, while carrying out the work in the most imaginative, creative way.

In the urgent desire to protect the freedom of researchers to chose the best pathways to progress, science has often been sold to the politicians as something too mysterious and too risky for them to understand, and too unpredictable to allow the evaluation of the returns to the public interest until many years have passed. The promise of unpredictable new opportunities for society is, of course, a strong justification for Newtonian research. A portion of the federal research budget should be exempted from the normal political weighing of costs and near-term benefits. A recent study by the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academies has suggested that Newtonian research can be evaluated in compliance with GPRA, but only if tests of intellectual merit and comparative accomplishment internationally are the metric.

But much of America’s most creative science does contribute to identifiable areas of national interest in really important ways. There is every reason to recognize those connections where they are apparent and to adopt a set of national strategies for such basic scientific and technological research that can earn the support of Congress and form the centerpiece of a national research and innovation strategy. We need a new model for public science, and Jeffersonian research offers one way of articulating a central element of that new model.

The third category

An innovative society needs more research driven by societal need but performed under the conditions of imagination, flexibility, and competition that we associate with traditional basic science. Donald Stokes presented a matrix of utility and fundamentality in science and called the upper right corner “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” describing Pasteur’s research as goal-oriented but pursued in a basic research style. Some in Europe call it “strategic research,” intending “strategic” to imply the existence of a goal and a strategy for achieving it, but suggesting a lot of flexibility in the tactics for reaching the goal most effectively.

Discomfort with the binary categorization of federal research into basic and applied goes back a good many years. More recently, a 1995 study on the allocation of scientific resources carried out by COSEPUP under the leadership of Frank Press, former science adviser to President Carter, suggested that the U.S. government budget process should isolate a category of technical activity called Federal Science and Technology (FS&T). The committee felt that it was misleading to present to Congress a budget proposing R&D expenditures of some $80 billion without pointing out that only about half of this sum represented additions to the basic stock of scientific and engineering knowledge. The committee’s objective was to distinguish the component of the federal budget that called for creative research (in our parlance, the sum of the Newtonian and Jeffersonian budgets) from the development, testing, and evaluation that consume a large part of the military R&D budget but add relatively little to basic technological knowledge. Press’s effort, like our own, was aimed at gaining acceptance for the idea that it is in the national interest for much of the government’s R&D to be carried out under highly creative conditions.

Vannevar Bush has been much misunderstood; his position was much more Jeffersonian than most scientists believe.

I believe it would be much easier to understand what is required if the agencies would define basic research not by the character of the benefits the public expects to gain (large but unpredictable and long-delayed benefits in the case of Newtonian research) but rather by the highly creative environment in which the best basic research is carried out. If this idea is accepted, basic research may describe the environment in which both Newtonian and Jeffersonian science are carried out. In contrast, Baconian research is, like most industrial research, carried out in a more tightly managed and disciplined environment, since the knowledge to solve the identified problem is presumed to be substantially in hand.

If we pursue this line of reasoning, we are immediately led to the realization that the goals to which Jeffersonian research is dedicated require progress in both scientific understanding and in new technological discoveries. Thus not only basic science but a broad range of basic technology research of great value to society is required. The key idea here is to separate in our policy thinking the motives for spending public money on research from the choice of environments in which to perform the work. Thus, the idea of a Jeffersonian research strategy also serves to diminish the increasingly artificial distinction between science and technology (or engineering).

A long-running debate

The debate between Congress and the White House over post­World War II science policy was intense in 1946 and 1947. Congressional Democrats, led by Senator Harley Kilgore of West Virginia, wanted the impressive power of wartime research in government laboratories to address the needs of civil society, as it had done in such spectacular form in the war. Vannevar Bush, head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) in President Roosevelt’s administration, observed that university scientists had demonstrated great creativity in the development of radar, nuclear weapons, and tactics based on the new field of operations research. He concluded that conventional industrial and government research organizations were well suited to incremental advances accomplished in close relationships to the intended users. But to get the creativity and originality that produced radical progress, the researchers needed a lot of independence. In the United States, this kind of creative research atmosphere was most often found in the best research universities. His proposal was to fund that work through a National Research Foundation.

Bush has been much misunderstood; his position was much more Jeffersonian than most scientists believe. His concept for the National Research Foundation was strongly focused on empowering researchers outside government with a lot of independence, but it also contained divisions devoted to medical and military goals that were clearly focused on important long-term societal goals. He quite clearly stated that although the military services should continue to do the majority of defense R&D, they could be expected to push back the frontiers only incrementally. He argued that the Defense Department needed a more freewheeling, inventive research program, drawing on the power of creative thinking in the universities.

By the time Congress crafted a national science funding agency it had already been stripped of its more pragmatic national goals. Its role would be to advance science broadly. When finally enacted, the foundation’s director would be appointed by a science board, not by the president. President Truman’s veto message, crafted by Donald Price, objected to this lack of accountability to the president, who must ask Congress for the agency’s money. What emerged in 1953 was a National Science Foundation devoted to the broad support of autonomous academic science (and, by subsequent amendment, engineering).

The mission-oriented agencies had long since inherited their research agendas from the dissolution of the OSRD and established their own goal-oriented programs of research: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Atomic Energy Commission, and the research agencies of the three military services. Although the Office of Naval Research (ONR) inherited much of Bush’s philosophy, it was not until the late 1950s that an Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) was created under the civilian control of the office of the Secretary of Defense to pursue more radical innovations, which would not be likely to emerge from military research agencies. Thus, NSF became a Newtonian agency in large measure, and the Jeffersonian concept would have to find a home in NIH and to some extent in the other mission-oriented agencies.

The concept that the mission agencies were responsible for sustaining the technical skills and knowledge infrastructure in support of national interests goes back to the Steelman Report in 1947 and was implemented by President Eisenhower in Executive Order 10521 on March 17, 1954. It might be said that a commitment to Jeffersonian science is thus the law of the land. Nevertheless, convincing the agencies to create such strategies and sell them to the White House and Congress has been a long struggle. In many cases, the agencies responded with modest investments in Newtonian research without a strong Jeffersonian program that identified additional research linked to a long-range strategy. However, the record does include some bright spots.

Jeffersonian tendencies

One can find many examples of federally funded research that is responsive to a vision of the future but supported by a highly creative and flexible research program. The most dramatic and successful examples are found in pursuit of two major national goals: defense and health. Defense research is a special case, from a public policy perspective, because the government is the customer for the products of private-sector innovation. Although the military services have pursued a primarily Baconian strategy that produced continuous advances in existing weapons systems, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has invested strategically in selected areas of new science that were predictably of great, if not well-defined, importance. In creating the nation’s leading academic capability in computer science and in digital computer networking, largely through extended investments in a selected group of elite universities, DARPA was following in the visionary path defined by ONR in the years after World War II. However, the end of the Cold War has already led to a serious retrenchment in the Defense Department’s share of the nation’s most creative basic research.

The physical sciences are not without isolated Jeffersonian programs. Much of the search for renewable sources of energy that was initiated in the Carter administration, but is now substantially attenuated, was of this character. So too is advanced materials research that focuses on specific properties; this work draws on physics, chemistry, and engineering to create useful new properties that find their way into practical use. The program on thermonuclear fusion has pushed back the frontiers of plasma physics and has made significant progress toward its goal of fusion energy production. This year the administration appears ready to launch a national research program in nanotechnology, another potentially good example of Jeffersonian science.

The best current example of Jeffersonian research is provided by NIH, where biomedical and clinical research continues to satisfy the public’s expectations for fundamental advances in practical medicine on a broad front. If this model could be translated to the rest of science, the apparent conflict between creativity and utility would be largely resolved. It was this model that Senator Barbara Mikulski had in mind in challenging NSF to identify a substantial fraction of its research as “strategic,” specifying the broad societal goal to which the research might contribute. But health science is a special area in which, at least until recently, most of the benefit-delivery institutions (hospitals) were public or nonprofit private institutions, and no one objected to support by government of the clinical research that links biological science to medical practice. In the pursuit of economic objectives, on the other hand, the U.S. government is expected to let industry take responsibility for translating new scientific discoveries into commercial products, except where government is the customer for the ultimate product.

Still other programs, such as the NSF program on Research Applied to National Needs (RANN), were much more controversial than NIH biomedical science or DARPA computer networking. RANN was a response to public pressures of the early 1970s for more relevance of university science to social needs. RANN called for research to be performed on relatively narrowly defined, long-term national needs, such as research to mitigate the damage caused by fire. It was probably more successful than it is given credit for, but the appearance of the word “applied” in the title made many scientists, accustomed to NSF’s support of basic research, feel threatened.

Federal agencies should be investing in programs to enhance the nation’s capacity to address specific issues in the most creative way.

At about the same time, Congress passed the Mansfield Amendment (section 203 of the Defense Procurement Authority Act of 1970), which stated that no research could be funded unless it “has a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation.” The defense research agencies then required that academic proposals document the contribution to military interests that each project might make. The academic scientists could only speculate about possible military benefits; most simply had no knowledge that would permit them to make such a judgement. Clearly, even if the government program officers had made those judgements and communicated a broad strategy to the scientific community, the requirement that the researchers document the government’s strategy was inappropriate. This requirement, imposed at a time when universities were caught up in opposition to the Vietnam War and suspicious of defense research support, seemed to validate the scientists’ fears of what goal-oriented public research would entail.

Researchers are concerned not about the fact that government agencies have public interest goals for the research that they support but about the way in which agency goals are allowed to spill over into the conduct of the research. The NIH precedent demonstrates that as long as the agency’s scientific managers defend the goals (diagnosing and ameliorating disease) and defend the strategy for achieving them (basic research in biology and clinical medicine) with equal vigor, a Jeffersonian strategy for progress toward goals through creative research can be successful. When, as in the case of the Mansfield Amendment, the government takes a political shortcut by transferring responsibility for justifying the investment from the agency to the individual researchers, both science and the public interest suffer.

The corporate research managers in the best firms offer examples of the appropriate way to manage Jeffersonian research. Corporate laboratories that engage in basic research hire the most talented scientists whose training and interest lie within the scope of the firm’s future needs. Research managers make sure that the scientists are aware of those commercial needs and have access to the best information about work in the field around the world. They reward technological progress when it seems of special value. They recognize that progress in scientific understanding can not only offer new possibilities for products but can also inform technological choice and support the construction of technology roadmaps. In such laboratories one hears very little talk of basic or applied research. These labels are not felt to be useful. All long-range industrial research is seen as both need-driven and opportunistic, and in that sense Jeffersonian.

Losing balance

The leaders of the conservative 104th Congress waged a broad attack on national research programs that were justified by goals defined by the government (other than defense and health). At the same time, Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), the new chair of the House Science Committee, claimed to be the defender of basic science. To symbolize this position, he removed the word “technology” from the committee’s name. But Mary Good, undersecretary of commerce for technology in the first Clinton administration, often pointed out the dangers of a strategy of relying solely on research performed for the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity. The politicians would soon realize, she said, that U.S. basic science was part of an internationally shared system from which all nations benefit. Failing to see how U.S. citizens would gain economic advantage from a national strategy that made no effort to target U.S. needs and opportunities, future Congresses might cut back funding of basic science even further. Equally dangerous, of course, is a nearsighted program of incremental research aimed at marginal improvements in the way things are done today. The nation will not be able to transform its economy into an environmentally sustainable one, develop safe and secure new energy sources, or learn how to educate its children effectively without a great many new ideas.

The United States should rely primarily on research performed under highly creative conditions, the conditions we associate with basic science. But we need not forego the benefits and the accountability that identifying our collective goals can bring. Indeed, if government agencies would generate long-term investment strategies and clearly articulate the basis for their expectations of progress, the nation would end up with the best of both worlds: research that is demonstrably productive and that helps build the future.

Next steps

To achieve this goal, government leaders must begin taking a much longer view, justifying and managing the work to maximize public benefits, taking into account both public and private investments. In every area of government activity, the responsible agencies should be investing in carefully planned programs to enhance the nation’s capacity to address specific issues in the most creative way. This strategy brings leverage to private-sector innovation, which can be expected to produce many, if not most, of the practical solutions to public problems. For this reason, a much larger fraction of the federal research agenda should be pursued under basic research conditions. At the same time, a larger fraction of the agenda should be linked directly to identified national interests. These two objectives are not only not in conflict; they support one another. Achieving these objectives will require a recognition that Jeffersonian research is as important to the future of the United States today as was the Lewis and Clark expedition two centuries ago, as well as a federal budgeting system that accommodates Jeffersonian as well as Newtonian and Baconian research.

To put the government on the right path, the Office of Science and Technology Policy should begin by selecting a few compelling, long-range issues facing the nation for which there is a widely recognized need for new technological options and new scientific understanding. This exercise would be similar to the one that Frank Press and President Carter conducted 20 years ago. Identifying a target issue would engage all of the relevant agencies, which now develop separate plans for their individual missions, in a concerted strategy of long-range creative research.

A candidate for such a project is the issue of the transition to sustainability in the United States and the world. A soon-to-be-released four-year study by the NRC’s Board on Sustainable Development, entitled Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability, will outline what research is needed in a wide range of disciplines and how this research needs to be coordinated in order to be effective. Indeed, the report will go beyond research concerns to analyze how today’s techno-economic systems must be restructured in order to achieve environmentally sustainable growth. The preparation of a Jeffersonian research strategy for the transition to sustainability would provide the next president with an initiative that would compare favorably in scope, importance, and daring with the launching of the Lewis and Clark expedition by President Jefferson.

When the administration presented its R&D budget to Congress for FY 2000, the president called special attention to a collection of budget items that, in the administration’s view, were the creative (Newtonian and Jeffersonian) components of the budget. He called these items “The 21st Century Research Fund” and asked Congress to give them special consideration. This initiative was quite consistent with the spirit of the 1995 Press Report’s recommendation that the budget isolate for special attention the FS&T component as they defined it. When the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director announced the president’s budget, he made specific reference to his intent to implement the spirit of the FS&T proposal, weeding out budget items that do not reflect the creativity, flexibility, and originality requirements that we associate with research as distinct from development.

Based on these two precedents, the staffs of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate, together with experts from OMB, should restructure the current typology of “basic, applied, and development” in a way that accommodates, separately, the public justification for research investments and the management environment in which the work is conducted. Such a restructuring has been urged in the past by others, particularly the General Accounting Office.

To explore the practicality of these ideas and to engage the participation of a broader community of stakeholders in the national research enterprise, a national conference should be called to prepare a nonpartisan proposal for consideration by all the candidates for president. The bicentenary of Jefferson’s assumption of the presidency would seem a good year to initiate this change.

Recommended Reading

  • Board on Sustainable Development, National Research Council, Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999, forthcoming).
  • Lewis M. Branscomb, “From Science Policy to Research Policy” in Investing in Innovation, ed. L. M. Branscomb and James Keller (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998).
  • David Hart, Forged Consensus: Science, Technology, and Economic Policy in the United States, 1921-1953 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
  • Gerald Holton, “On the Jeffersonian Research Program,” in G. Holton, Science and Anti-Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  • Donald E. Stokes, Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997).
Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Branscomb, Lewis M. “The False Dichotomy: Scientific Creativity and Utility.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 1 (Fall 1999).

Vol. XVI, No. 1, Fall 1999