Before 1941 the US government did not fund research, except only very modestly in the service of very narrow missions such as defence. Yet by 1890 the US had already become the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world, thanks in part to a laissez‐faire approach to research.
In 1941, however, the federal authorities launched a new research body, the Office of Scientific Development and Research (OSDR), to help fight the upcoming war, and between 1941 and 1945 it did sterling work. By 1945, though, the OSDR was facing redundancy. That prompted its director, Vannevar Bush, to write a book called Science, the Endless Frontier, to try to persuade the federal government to continue funding it.
Bush failed in his lobbying, and the OSDR closed. Nonetheless, he had resurrected an old thought, namely that advances in technology flowed out of advances in pure science. Resurrected is the right word, for the idea had long been thoroughly discredited. As early as 1776, in his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had shown that advances in pure science emerged as by‐products of advances in technology, and later economists including Marx, Engels and Schumpeter had confirmed that finding.
Yet in 1950, when Harry Truman created the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help win the Cold War, Bush persuaded him that the new body should be dedicated to pure science. Even though Bush’s own OSDR hadn’t won the Second World War by pure science (the OSDR’s research had been ruthlessly focused on technology), he leveraged its success to promote a completely different model of Cold War research, one based on pure science rather than technology.
And it failed. For in 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, beating the US into space and threatening the land of the free and the home of the brave with nuclear annihilation from above. It was in response to that failure that, in 1958, the federal government launched ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (note the word ‘Projects’), specifically to fund technology. The NSF’s pure science had delivered little of strategic value, so the federal authorities reverted to the original OSDR model of (1) first identifying technological goals (an atom bomb, say) and (2) then recruiting the necessary tools by which to reach those goals.
Unfortunately, ARPA too was soon captured by its scientists and started to fund pure science. In 1969, however, the ARPA model came unstuck. The Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering in Washington DC published Project Hindsight to analyse 700 research ‘events’ that had led to the development of 20 weapons systems. The Office found that only two of those 700 research events could be classified as pure science. Thus did the DC defence establishment confirm that pure science was simply irrelevant to the US’s defence requirements.
Consequently, in 1969/70 and 1973 respectively, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield pushed through his celebrated amendments to the Military Authorization Acts to strip ARPA (now named DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) of its pure science. In doing so Mansfield effectively made all of ARPA’s pure scientists redundant. And though he was at the time condemned for destroying American science, Mansfield should actually be seen as one of the fathers of the modern American economy.
Among the most prominent contemporary advocates for state‐led scientific research is Mariana Mazzucato, a Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at UCL. As well her academic posts, she holds an inordinate number of advisory roles — with the OECD, the EU, the UN and various national governments. She’s also a member of the UK Innovation Expert Group, a government advisory body.
In 2013 Mazzucato was named one of “the three most important thinkers about innovation” by New Republic, in 2014 she won the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy, and in 2015 she won the Hans‐Matthöfer‐Preis. In 2020 she won the greatest prize of all, the one bestowed by the empyrean heights, when Pope Francis praised her work in his book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.
Mazzucato, in short, is the panjandrum’s panjandrum, and as such, of course, she is wrong about virtually everything; including her assertion in her celebrated 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State that D/ARPA was responsible for key advancements in microchips and personal computing: