Sound bites are important
Arguably the first linear model mentioned is not so much wrong as it is woefully inadequate. But it makes for good soundbites for those focused on science budgets and notions of economic competitiveness.–David Bruggeman (emphasis added)
David is of course correct here. The linear model–where basic research leads inexorably to applied research, technology and economic growth–is inadequate. We’ve tread over this ground before, and I won’t rehash those arguments here. What I am interested in exploring is why the linear model remains even though its flaws have been widely documented.
It’s true that scientists deploy it all the time to advance their agenda, which surely contributes to its persistence. But I think that’s only part of the story. Part of the reason the linear model sticks is precisely because it is a good sound bite. It provides a clear mental picture that motivates a specific action (more basic research!) while not being either too wordy or subtle. The phrase “basic research is the source of technology” is succinct and clear, while “basic research can lead to technology, but so can applied research” is not. The latter really doesn’t tell us what to do. So if we want more technology, should we fund more basic research? Or applied?
None of this is particularly groundbreaking or original. But I wonder if the fine folks at The Bubble Chamber realize that part of their (our?) energy must be explicitly devoted to finding compelling sound bites. Ultimately, outreach and education won’t alter the public debate without them. My clumsy analogies between science and sports represent, I hope, some minor progress in this arena.