Innovation vs. Invention
I wonder if we’ve got the whole thing wrong.
The fact is: universities don’t produce innovation. For that matter, neither does industrial R&D.
What university and industrial research produces is invention.
The Blackberry is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A new cancer-fighting drug is not an innovation, it’s an invention. A more durable prosthetic knee is not an innovation, it’s an invention.
Universities can – and do – produce inventions.
In fact, they produce inventions at an astonishing rate. University tech transfer offices (now usually branded as “centres for innovation and commercialization”) register more intellectual property than could ever be effectively commercialized.
But innovation is distinct from invention. Innovation is about process.
Innovation is about finding more efficient ways to do things. Innovation is about increasing productivity. Innovation is about creating new markets – sometimes through the commercialization of inventions.
Innovation is about the how not about the what.
Now, innovation may involve invention, and it often does. But innovation is the process by which inventions get commercialized.
Innovation is about economics, not knowledge.
As such, academic research and innovation work from opposite directions (as Jim pointed out in his comment). Research-derived invention comes from asking questions, working towards unpredictable new technologies, new capabilities, with an uncertain outcome. Commercial innovation is based on identifying a need, describing the outcome, and then working towards it. In other words, research ends at the outcome whereas innovation starts there.
If this is the case, then university research is uniquely unqualified to drive innovation.
Investing money into academic R&D to increase innovation is like investing in auto plants to increase car sales. You’re solving the wrong problem.
Increasing innovation, changing the processes by which companies operate, is an economic question, not a scientific or technical one. It needs to be addressed economically, whether through economic incentives, increased competition, improved international trade, etc.
This is not to say that academic research cannot and does not contribute mightily to a modern, innovative economy. It is absolutely essential, as a repository of advanced technical knowledge, a training ground for HQP, and as a generator of inventions. It is also – and I think we’ve stopped making this argument forcefully enough – valuable for its own sake, as a socially valuable and worthwhile endeavour to increase our knowledge and understanding of our world.
And herein lies a danger: in times of uncertain funding, academic research has often justified its expense through its role as a “driver of innovation”. Science has made bold promises, and perhaps hubristically, academics have suggested that R&D can (and will!) be the cornerstone of a “knowledge economy”.
These types of arguments have helped increase CIHR’s annual budget to over $1-billion annually – it’s not just about building new knowledge, it’s explicitly about its “translation into improved health for Canadians”. (A note: the mandate of the MRC – which preceded the CIHR – made no mention of health outcomes. Its role was to “promote, assist, and undertake basic, applied, and clinical research in Canada in the health sciences and to advise the Minister of Health…”. It is no coincidence that the creation of the CIHR included this new focus on outcomes while also doubling its budget).
But here we are, ten years after the $3-billion Human Genome Project’s (HGP) vaunted completion, and grumblings are starting to be heard. Tthe biotech industry didn’t become the next Silicon Valley. “Personalized Medicine” remains a promise for some future date. And the results didn’t tell us anything about cancer – instead, they begat the “Cancer Genome Project“, another $1-billion effort that we’re told will deliver on the HGP’s promise. Promised treatments and economic innovations always just out of reach, another major investment away.
(An aside – in my opinion, the most interesting fact to come out of the HGP was the radical reassessment of the number of human genes and the discovery of “junk DNA”. This has led to fascinating work on microRNAs and other non-coding features that fundamentally changed how we understood genetics and biology. This is basic science at its best.)
The danger lies in making promises and not delivering. If we decide to make our case for research based on deliverables – if we justify increased funding by arguing research can drive innovation – then we have to answer for it when the deliverables don’t show up. And given my argument that academic researchers can’t deliver innovation, then we may be setting ourselves up for a mighty fall.
a note: Maintaining a blog is by nature a solitary exercise – you send your words out into the ether and hope for the best. This is why reader’s comments are so appreciated by bloggers: at a minimum they validate your efforts by demonstrating that people are paying attention. In the best case, though, the comments extend the conversation and provoke new ideas. I am particularly lucky to have thoughtful readers who contribute immeasurably to my ideas. My thoughts in this post were largely inspired by comments by “Jim” and “Spongebob” to my last post. For that, I thank them and encourage others to join the conversation.