Is committment more important than direction?

Last week I went to the “Scientists meet the Media” party at the Royal Society.  This is an annual event where scientists, both from universities and agencies like ours, mingle with journalists – the whole thing lubricated by industrial amounts of alcohol. There was a slight frisson about the letter to the Telegraph in the background but it was mostly good-natured. After his introductory remarks (as Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society) I talked to Martyn Poliakoff about the issue and he later sent me a link to his musings on the subject.  It got me thinking about what connects world-class science to world-class business.

When I first started my career in industry, I was given a task to identify areas of science where my employers could see potential products or services that fitted within their portfolio of business interests. Given that I worked for BP and it was trying to work out how far it could spread its interests, this gave me a pretty broad palette, but I still had to make links between the technology and things people could envisage selling. After talking to lots of people both inside and outside BP, I recommended we focus on conducting polymers and started a programme to identify markets that could benefit from their unique properties and look for ways around the characteristics that were currently inhibiting their uptake.  This involved working with a team that included chemists, materials scientists, physicists and device engineers both inside and outside the organisation.  It was intellectually challenging and we published papers as well as filing patents. All along though, we had a vision of the types of products and services we were aiming to produce, because that was how industrial research was done.

At the same time within BP, the Venture Research Unit was seeking out what someone once characterised as “scientific rebels”. They were supporting scientists and engineers who wanted to work in an area that many others regarded as pointless or irrelevant or worse. Every year, they held a conference where they mixed these disruptive elements with those of us within the corporate research organisation. It was at one of these meetings that I first met Martyn.  He was looking at the behaviour of supercritical carbon dioxide. I don’t think he was focused on any particular application.  It was just that the behaviour was novel and interesting and he wanted to understand it.

As it turns out both areas have blossomed into commercial technologies and have found application in new products and services. Over the last 30 or so years, the promise of conducting polymers has started to be realised, but the application of supercritical fluids in a variety of processes has possibly exceeded the commercial aspirations of those who originally worked in the field.

For me, this simple contrast between two areas of chemistry I know moderately well encapsulates the quandary about the best way to extract value from science.  It has been my experience that all forms of new knowledge have value – it is just the timing that varies. The obvious value of using easily processible polymers as semiconductors has taken a lot longer to be exploited because the established industries who could have used them didn’t always want to change. They knew how to operate with their existing materials and processes and the development pathways of the “sitting tenants” has meant that the newer materials were chasing a moving target. In fact, the main applications that these materials are finding are mostly those where the properties of the new materials are different from those of the existing materials and where new applications have been developed.

It is perhaps because I know less about the details in the uptake of supercritical fluids that I think I see an easier path towards exploitation. The science was developed without the weight of expectation that other areas have laboured under. No-one kept asking where the payback was coming from because it hadn’t been part of the “case” for the original work. As the novelty of the properties became apparent, people from different areas of commercial activity moved in to exploit them.

The observation I cannot escape making is that the development of the basic science in both cases was necessary but not sufficient for technological implementation, and that the applied focus of one did not mean it was exploited quicker. The important point in both cases is that those engaged in trying to understand the underlying science, although they were driven by very different drivers, were committed to understand how and why things behaved the way they did.  The translation into commercial products was carried out with a different mind-set. The link between a specific set of properties and an application is not about science, it is about technology and business. Many who successfully translate science into business are not scientists.  It is just that they recognise the link between the properties and the solution to a problem that they believe people will pay for.  What technology-based business are critically dependent on is new discoveries and insights into the way the world around us operates.  Without that, the flow of new products and services will eventually dry up.

What is important is that scientists find out new things and that they pursue this goal with passion and rigour.  To specifically set out to solve a problem does not guarantee that the problem gets solved, and can constrain the imagination of those who work on the problem. Introducing new ideas into established markets is often difficult – it can be easier to see why things don’t work rather than why they do. The translation of “basic” science is not a linear trajectory with predictable consequences. From what I have seen, successful products usually start with a need that people would pay to resolve, and involve someone in business with the imagination to envisage at least one way to address that need and the connections to find a potentially relevant piece of science or engineering. There is often a lot of interaction, clarification of the understanding on both sides of the discussion and, sometimes, successful development of a new product or service. Sadly though, sometimes it doesn’t work and someone gets unfairly labelled a failure for having tried. What we need is a better link between science and business, not to turn scientists into businessmen.

Or, to paraphrase another old friend from science who was commenting on the timelines of his own work, we need to look at the whole thing and think “this is the science that has made money, and this is the science that hasn’t made money – YET!”


Last updated on Thursday 23 February 2012 at 13:59

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  • Michael Merrifield|06/06/12 at 5:57 PM

    David ---

    It is interesting that you assume that my biographical analysis of Prof Skies' correspondence is intended to disagree with everything you say. As you said, some of your argument matches quite closely with her experience, as does the point that Prof Poliakoff made that precipitated your article, so it is strange that you have chosen to adopt such an unpleasantly confrontational stance.

    The argument I was reacting against was your closing summary that scientists should view their work as either making money or intended to make money in the future. I consider this as a fundamentally wrongheaded way to get either good science or a good commercial return. My perspective is that Government-funded science should be undertaken primarily as a curiosity-driven endeavour, albeit one that pays for its investment many times over by its essentially unpredictable commercial application. Therefore, the way Government-funded scientists should look at their research should be "This is good science; this is not so good science. I will do more of the good science, and keep an eye out for any places where there is potential for a commercial return to make sure its benefits are not lost," and not “this is the science that has made money, and this is the science that hasn’t made money – YET!”

    I sought to make this point of basic disagreement in a fairly lighthearted and non-personal way, and am therefore surprised that you chose to reply with a highly personalized and insulting response that I "lack attention to context" and have "difficulty in following an argument that is not my own." Please keep such nasty ill-informed unprofessional personal remarks to yourself in future.

    David Bott|06/06/12 at 10:34 AM


    Although I found your comments amusing, I am confused about why you are posting them on the Technology Strategy Board website. The Technology Strategy Board was spun out of the DTI in 2007 with the specific goal of supporting businesses to be more innovative – a fact that is riven through this website – and drive economic growth. That we would not fund basic research is therefore not really surprising. We have an annual budget of about £350m – a fraction of the £3.5bn that is invested in research through the research councils. We do not set out to fund work in universities – that we do is because the companies we do support see value in working with academics.

    Also, and I accept that I may not have been clear enough, I was arguing that aiming for impact is not necessarily the best way to get it – so, in a way, I am on your side. If you read the penultimate paragraph, I hope you will agree.

    For more than 30 years, I have always been an advocate of curiosity driven research, although if your lack of attention to context and difficulty in following an argument that is not your own is typical I may be forced to change my position.


    Michael Merrifield|04/06/12 at 8:17 PM

    Editor's note: Interestingly, in going through Prof Skies' archive of correspondence, I found the following down the back of a filing cabinet, dated June 1987. Historians of public policy will note the first recorded use of the term "impact" in its current sense of aiming for mediocrity.

    Dr B. Skies
    Sub-basement 4
    University of Imaginative Thought

    Dear Dr Skies,

    Thank you for your expression of interest. If I can be frank with you, we found your idea truly ridiculous. The notion that one would choose to fund a field as esoteric as particle physics, in the distant hope that it might spontaneously produce the greatest breakthrough in information technology of all time, seems entirely implausible. The picture you paint of a "world-wide web" of data accessed across the globe providing everything from free encylopaedic information to access to on-line shopping through a graphical interface is, our technology experts assure us, a complete non-starter.

    Accordingly, we have decided to invest the budget for this programme in more proven technologies that offer a certainty of return. I am sure you will be excited to hear that the funds are being invested in a new command-line-interface anonymous ftp server; we predict that one day there may be as many as three hundred of these servers across the World!

    We realize that as a new postdoctoral researcher you do not have much experience in developing successful cases for research funding, so would like to pass on the advice that you try to think more comfortably within the box, to avoid this kind of embarrassing fantasy in future, and to ensure that your work reaches the levels of impact that we expect of the research that we fund.

    Yours Sincerely

    A Drone
    Council for Innovation

    Michael Merrifield|27/05/12 at 5:04 PM

    Prof B. Skies
    Ivory Tower 57b
    Department of Imaginative Research
    University of Dreams

    Dear Professor Skies,

    I regret to inform you that your grant application has been unsuccessful. While the panel recognized that observations leading to the unequivocal identification of life on a planet orbiting another star would have immense cultural and philosophical implications for how humanity views its place in the Cosmos, it was also agreed that this research offered no probability of a financial return in the near term. Indeed, given that the light travel time to Epsilon Delphini is several thousand years, the prospect of this discovery having any significant impact on our balance of trade is negligible for the foreseeable future.

    We remain somewhat disappointed that you have failed to take on board our suggestion that you focus your efforts on work that is either "already making money" or "not making money YET," and can only suggest that you take steps to think less imaginatively in future.

    Yours Sincerely

    A Drone
    Council for Research that Makes Money

    David Bott|13/05/12 at 6:14 PM


    The sorts of people I was thinking about were reasonably common in business - and were very successful there. I have also met some in universities who can honestly appraise the value of their ideas.

    They were the ones that listened to others, that accumulated early stage ideas and assembled them into usable product and service concepts. They were curious about the world of commerce and always on the look-out for new technologies than might answer the questions they kept hearing.

    The main point I was trying to make is that a simple model that says "money into research leads inexorably to money out of commerce" is wrong and that we need to find a way to work together as some sort of "innovation supply chain" for the UK (and the world) that make sure we answer the questions not produce ideas than no-one knows how to use, but that timing is also important.


    Pat|06/05/12 at 12:38 AM


    As enticing as the two options model above sounds they are both laid out on a limitless landscape of time and money that is fast disappearing. Global sustainability dictates that we MUST ensure the translation of science into business or we have neither science or business going forward. And in science, as in life, the luxury component of pure passion, untethered to economic realities is the privilege of the few not the masses.

    My question to you would be: What traits and core competencies are held by those who "recognise the link between the properties and the solution to a problem that they believe people will pay for"?

    Will our organizations, financiers and society fund and spawn these new age translators?

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