Discussion Paper - Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center

The Discovery-Invention Cycle: Bridging the Basic/Applied Dichotomy

| February 2013


Since the Second World War U.S. science policy has, in large measure, been driven by Vannevar Bush's Science, The Endless Frontier. Bush's separation of research into "basic" and "applied" domains has been enshrined as status quo in much of U.S. science and technology policy over the past seven decades. However, the relationship of science and technology research to economic and societal wellbeing requires a coherent national innovation policy to bridge this divide. Much of the debate over the categories of basic and applied centers on what the appropriate federal role is in innovation. Bush argued successfully that funding "basic" research was a necessary role for government, with the implication that "applied" research should be left to the auspices of markets except where necessary to the public interest (defense and health "applied research" for example). Nevertheless, the original distinction is an artificial one and this is perhaps the time that policy discussions are moved beyond a simple focus on the stated goals of research to more productive considerations of a holistic view of the research enterprise.

In this paper we hope to provide an alternative point of view. By examining both the evolution of the famous "linear model of innovation" — which holds that scientific research precedes technological innovation — and the problematic description of engineering being "applied science" we seek to challenge the existing dichotomies between basic / applied research, science and engineering, tracing how knowledge travels between different knowledge domains through a case study of a selected group of Nobel Prizes in physics.

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For Academic Citation: Narayanamurti, Venkatesh, Tolu Odumosu, and Lee Vinsel. “The Discovery-Invention Cycle: Bridging the Basic/Applied Dichotomy.” Discussion Paper, 2013-02, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center, February 2013.

The Authors