Many of the painful choices faced by Vannevar Bush in shaping US science policy after the Second World War (Nature 466, 922–923; 2010) still confront those who formulate federal funding for research today.

The polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said of science: “To one man it is the highest thing, a heavenly goddess; to another it is a productive and proficient cow, who supplies them with butter.” But if the goddess is forgotten, will the cow starve?

Attempts to save the cow based on the financial demands of scientific organizations are not enough today — times are tough for everyone. And remembering the goddess by defending intellectual curiosity runs the risk of insulating a sandbox of scholars from grown-up evaluations of the quality or public relevance of work financed by taxpayers.

The justification for both curiosity-driven and mission-oriented research in the future will rest on a deeper rethinking of goals and process. This may be feasible using ideas emerging from a thriving programme at the US National Science Foundation, based on what previous presidential science adviser Jack Marburger called a “science of science policy”. Past returns on investments should be documented thoroughly to help set priorities and estimates of outcomes more persuasively.

But critical, non-quantitative judgements will continue: reviewers must use intuition as well as analysis to sort out new ideas, and funding agencies must impose stern standards of quality. Even in wartime, that is what Vannevar Bush did.

In short, honour the goddess and feed the cow.