In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Issues at the Technology/Policy Interface
July 1, 2016 Volume 46 Issue 2

Op-ed: The Symbiosis of Science and Technological Innovation

Friday, July 1, 2016

Author: Jonathan D. Linton and Daniel Berg

The symbiosis of science and technology plays an integral role in innovation. Science is needed for innovation regardless of whether science or technology leads. We propose mission-oriented research and fortuitous observation as the dominant trajectories for discovery that are not based on fundamental science.

In addition to existing programs and policies that focus on the conversion of science to innovation, programs and policies that encourage the development of science from innovation should be developed. For example, the technology-to-science link can be made stronger in education by encouraging the exploration of results that violate expectations when teaching the scientific method to students.

Although the importance of science in the creation of social and economic benefits is well articulated, recognition of the critical importance of science for inventions driven by technological advance is limited. Examples such as the large economic gains from 19th century technological advances in an America with limited science capabilities seem to suggest that science may be unnecessary for economic growth.

But science is needed whether it leads or follows technological advances.

Advances such as thermodynamics, photography, incandescent lighting, transistors, and photocopying are all cases in which technology led science. A specific mission—light from electricity, a reliable replacement switch for vacuum tubes, and an inexpensive way to copy documents—led to a technological advance before science could. Alternatively, thermodynamics, penicillin, and photography are the results of observation, capture, and refinement of an unanticipated event.

Regardless of the path to technological advance—whether mission oriented or serendipitous—the search for understanding (science) needs to follow. Without scientific research the new technologies mentioned above would have been impossible to control, manage, refine, and fully exploit. In fact, a substantial part of industry basic research is the pursuit of understanding of useful observed phenomena. For example, Xerox’s quest to understand the science behind photocopying not only greatly improved the quality of black-and-white copying but also resulted in the development of color photocopying.

Science replaces faith in technology with fundamental understanding. Without science, technical discovery would be seen as either mystical or a wonderful “black box.” Scientific research into technological discovery offers deeper understanding of each technological advance and of the world around us.

Recognizing this link can inform better policies and approaches to encourage industrial research. The following illustrate approaches to create opportunities.

For many years, fears of industrial collusion and threats to academic freedom created a barrier between firm-firm and firm-university interaction. Changes to antitrust regulation allowed for precompetitive basic and applied research partnerships such as Sematech (the semiconductor industry) and the Industry Cooperative for Ozone Layer Protection (ICOLP). The trend toward entrepreneurial universities is encouraging various types of transfers of applied and basic scientific knowledge. The NSF Research Centers catalyze the development of firm-university interactions, as the research centers require matching grants and advisory boards involving industry. Programs operated by MITACS and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council  (NSERC) in Canada provide funding for graduate students to solve industry problems of a technical nature that are related to the student’s field of study.

The encouragement of interactions leading to a virtuous cycle of investigation between science and technology is also impacted by industry structure. Bell Labs had tremendous success in both the basic and applied sciences, in part because (1) research was collocated with production, ensuring manufacturability and scalability, and (2) senior management was responsible for both basic science and applied technology, so potential links between advances were more apparent.

In terms of the government role, policy and regulation need to catalyze interactions between stakeholders. There is a need to avoid well-meaning policy that creates unanticipated consequences that block the flow of knowledge between science, technology, invention, and innovation. The patent system has been described as such a policy, because patent trolls use the system to create financial barriers to inventors by registering ideas that the trolls do not intend to commercialize.

Perhaps more significant is the need to enhance how the scientific method is taught. Master’s and doctoral programs greatly emphasize the scientific method, which is critical for research, but they need to put greater stress on searching for, observing, and exploring unexpected results. Exploration of the unexpected makes it possible to identify paradigm-breaking phenomena with useful technological implications. A focus on the presence of the unexpected can increase advances in both science and technology.

In summary, recognition that the pathway to innovation can be a function of either science leading to technology or technology leading to science is helpful in terms of communication with the public, policy, and effective education and practice.

About the Author:Jonathan D. Linton is Power Corporation Professor in the Management of Technological Enterprises, University of Ottawa, and academic head, Laboratory for Science and Technology Studies, National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Daniel Berg (NAE) is Distinguished Research Professor, University of Miami School of Engineering.