It all looks linear in hindsight

A few years ago, I attended an EPSRC organised presentation where an American professor was “proving” that all major technological developments had started in scientific laboratories. He had an impressive list of examples and was doing well until someone asked the simple question “what happened to all the ideas that didn’t get developed?” This question has come to mind a couple of times over the last few weeks as the media have been full of cuts to scientific funding and the defence put up by the scientific community.

My concern is not that there isn’t a case, but that the case is being made in too simple a manner. The concept of a linear model that links scientific discovery through technological development to commercial success was discarded long ago, but the dependence exists, only in a more complex form. The drive to simplify it all claims its first casualties with the nomenclature. It is often common to refer to scientists as a homogenous group, but the description is, more often than not, shorthand for scientists, engineers, mathematicians and a whole slew of different disciplines, many of who get mildly upset by this generic stereotyping!

The first, and often overlooked, output of scientific activity that links to business is the people. Nearly all of the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians I have worked with through my career were trained in their discipline to some advanced level. The breadth and scale of scientific (in all disciplines) knowledge requires proper training. You cannot just decide to be a scientist and get down to it the next day! You need to know the basics of your trade and it helps to know the history, but perhaps the greatest need is to understand the language. Science and technology are full of jargon, but it serves a purpose. Each apparently arcane word and acronym is shorthand for an idea or theory that enables the scientist to address a larger, more complex problem by breaking it down into simpler, more easily understood, parts.

There is a proliferation of learned societies and trade associations putting the case for how their part of the picture is important. However, there is a real danger in each sub-group putting its case on its own in this way. Though I admit my 27 years in industrial research and development doesn’t qualify me as an expert, I can assert that every good idea I saw that made its way into commercial reality had the hands of many different types of “scientist” – and some of a definitely non-scientific genus – on it through its journey from idea to commercial reality. Some of the most successful ideas started from an interaction between someone in “research” and someone in marketing. Much blood was usually spent in negotiations between the scientists in research and the engineers in production about whether there was any point in putting our new ideas into their well-run processes and disrupting them. And don’t even begin to explain why you should invest in new products to an accountant!

Surely, the point is that there is a difference between motivation to discover new knowledge and motivation to exploit it for commercial gain. To develop a new product (or service) access is needed to all the aspects of its novelty, and the interaction of all the underpinning aspects. If this knowledge already exists and it is easy to locate, then the path to commerce is shorter or quicker, depending on your metaphor. It is really important that the discovery of new knowledge is the prime driver in university research. That is how we get into totally new places on the knowledge map. To focus too closely on things close to market runs the risk of limiting the imagination – in “science speak” to go for the local rather than global minimum – and not allowing the exploration of the larger areas of unknown.

Part of the current problem lies with the restructuring of industry that has gone on in my work lifetime. When I started most companies with a technological base had some sort of “corporate” or long-term research activity. This allowed the assimilation of bright, young academic talent, the building and maintaining of strong interactions with the universities and research institutions and the flow of ideas and needs between the 2 communities. Whether it was caused by the short-termism of financial markets can be debated, but, over time, this function of “doing technological business” has been run down to the point that only a few examples still exist. Thus one of the potential routes for communications between the knowledge base and those who could exploit it has been lost.

Meanwhile, in search of the demonstrating their “impact” many universities have built departments to support the evaluation of interesting new science, the growth of start-up companies based on this science and (usually) the sale of an intermediate sized company on to a larger one to realise the value for the university. The drive to build a large company is often not in the plan – the exit strategy is a sale! Building a company is difficult and takes the combined might of several disciplines and (in my experience) an almost maniacal dedication to that goal. It is not something that can be done as a sideline. If the need to demonstrate impact is the sole driving force for the establishment of the company, then it ignores one of the basic tenets of business practice – that the best way to make money is to supply something you know that people want so much they will pay money for it! If there is a real insight into the end use and evidence that this new piece of science is an important part of the answer, then there is at least some hope of eventual success.

One thing that does drive business is “novelty”. This is not to use the word in its pejorative sense, but to recognise that we, as a species and thus as customers, like new ways of solving problems or addressing needs. What we therefore crave is something new and unexpected. There are a fair number of papers written on the subject of the selection process for academic research. The whole concept of “peer review” has been criticised as being “peer preview” because the work is judged before it is carried out rather than afterwards, and it has been pointed out that since the researcher is probably in competition for plaudits with his peers, there is the possibility that it “smoothes the rough edges” off disruptive ideas. Does this serve as the basis for uncovering radically new ideas?

So, where does leave us? How do we best link an outstandingly strong knowledge base to business? I would suggest that it starts with an understanding of, and mutual respect for, the roles both sides (although it I firmly believe that the spread is more of a spectrum than a divide) play. This might be difficult to achieve in the current environment where the acquisition of funding has become a machismo activity. If we can achieve that, then communication of needs and capabilities across the communities comes next. I have sat in enough meetings between academics and businessmen to know that they often speak past one another. As long as academics believe that their idea has a right to be funded into commercial reality regardless of cost or return, and that businessmen do not recognise (and embrace) the contribution academics have made to the product or service they are now developing into commercial reality, then we will not realise the full potential of all the talent within the United Kingdom. And, I guess, the result of that will be economic decline and there will be no money for the activity anyway.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:08

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