Sunday, July 7, 2013

Who was Vannevar Bush? Why you should know

The government/industry partnership that existed from WW2 through ~1980 fueled the technological innovation that defined the USA and we are still benefiting from the partnership today, though the pipeline is beginning to run dry.  With the ascendance of applied research and connecting all research with specific economic return targets plus a lack of understanding by policy makers of how fundamental research historically provided unknown-at-the-time economic benefit decades later, we entered a period of R&D decline in about 1980 that we still suffer from today.

Governments demand accountability from those receiving taxpayer-funded research dollars.  And they should.  But results from fundamental science don’t appear in the country’s health, economic or military pipeline overnight.  Sometimes it can take decades from the first promising scientific observation to a tangible product.  Sometimes that product is simply an increase in human knowledge without a physical ‘widget’ ever being produced.  Sometimes the results from fundamental research help a researcher in another field make a breakthrough by simply learning of someone else’s seemingly unrelated research.  (This is another reason scientific conferences are important – at topic for a future blog entry.)

Industry isn’t any better; in fact, it may be worse.  The bottom line, a return on investment, is what matters in the world of business.  This is where applied research is more reasonable.  In counterpoint, don’t forget that Bell Labs performed fundamental research that led to incredibly profitable technologies.  Still, with an eye on quarter-to-quarter profitability, sustained research funded by industry doesn’t happen very often.

Policy makers should familiarize themselves with the life of Vannevar Bush and rethink the current government/industry partnership model.  We need to return to the post-WW2 model that Bush helped put into place.  This partnership led to an incredible period of research, technological creativity and innovation – a history lesson worth understanding.


  1. I worked at Bell Labs back when they were transitioning from the "Good Old Days" of unfettered research to the modern model of tying research directly to product or service improvements.

    Under the old model: the transistor, the laser, comsats, Unix, structured programming, etc. (And a fistful of Nobel Prizes.)

    Under the new model: bulldozed buildings (literally), 90% reduction in research staff, essentially zero output, and the surviving remnants sold to the French.

    Putting the MBAs in charge destroyed the advanced planning department for the human race.

  2. PARC Xerox in the 70s was wonderland. All we have in modern computing, the GUI, laser printers, Ethernet, object oriented programming, these all came out of a time when profitability was put on the back burner, and engineers were given autonomy on their projects. Read "Venders of Lightening"

  3. I'm working at one of Bush's legacies, "light of the gods". He was a pivotal character in a great story of technology development, the invention of radar: