Stop Worrying About Basic Research: Focus On Practical Innovation

from the about-time dept

For years, we’ve been among those pointing out that the really important thing in economic growth isn’t invention, but innovation. It’s the process of actually taking an idea and successfully bringing it to market in a way that people want that matters in the long run. Coming up with new ideas is only a small part of the process. That’s why we often have so much trouble with the way the patent system works. It greatly enhances the role of simply coming up with the new idea, and then makes the important part — the innovation — a lot more expensive. However, when we discuss this, we often get angry comments from people noting that “basic research” would disappear without patents. Of course, that’s unlikely for a variety of reasons, including the fact that a great deal of basic research has little or nothing to do with patents.

However, a recent deeply researched book by Columbia professor Amar Bhide called The Venturesome Economy goes even further in noting that all of this talk about basic research misses the point: basic research has little impact on actual innovation. If we want to focus on actually helping the economy, investing in basic research will do very little. The real trick is in encouraging that ongoing innovation — those “mid-level” improvements that make products more acceptable in the market. Even if basic research occurs outside of the US, our ability to take ideas and shape them into successful businesses by engaging in that process of refining and improving are what will allow the economy to continue growing. It’s great to see more academic support for these concepts.

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Comments on “Stop Worrying About Basic Research: Focus On Practical Innovation”

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Dustin says:

Without “basic research” mid-level innovations can’t happen. And the ones generating that basic research will most quickly be able to utilize it for industrial purposes.

This is short-sighted in the worst sort of way and has nothing to do with patents. You want a quantum computer? Learn how to control spin states and entanglement. You want disease resistant, super-nutrient laden crops? Learn how to genetically modify your crops without side effects, learn how to predict their metabolic pathways.

Basic scientific research is at the core of practically every technological advance we’ve seen in the last 200 years. You want to toss that aside for a short buck? Go ahead, but know we’ll be playing second fiddle to the researching nations from then on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think you miss the point, removing the impediments that patents place on the mid-level improvements does not toss away basic research but equalizes the importance that it plays. Basic research is nothing in the market place without the mid-level improvements. Learning how to genetically modify crops does not automatically lead to super-nutrient laden crops without somebody making the mid-level enhancements to make it cost effective to do so.

Focusing on only one piece of the entire innovation process is the problem. You’re focusing only on the smallest tip of everything. It’s still important, but it’s nothing by itself. Which is the problem here. By making it more important than the rest of the process you actually hurt the basic research.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You are missing the point. I agree that mid-level improvements are needed. But, as the success of such improvement is high (or at least predictable) it is easier to get funding from businesses and companies. As the implications of basic research is not proved before the research takes place, it does require some funding from the government.

No company is going to invest in genetic engineering. But once the technique is mastered many will be interested in using it for crop modification etc.

I am not saying the government should just throw around money. Money should be provided to people who have good experience and intellect (which is often the criteria for getting funding from NIH or DoS or NSA).

Lonnie E. Holder says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:


Your comments seem a bit imprecise. If a patent is about exploiting a “known idea,” then it is not statutorily patentable.

Patents have to be on devices or features that are non-obvious and new. For example, the first radar was non-obvious and new. The first diesel engine was quite non-obvious and new. The list of examples is extensive (if you believe that the tens of millions of patents issued by the nations of the world are for non-obvious and new inventions0.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I agree, my comment was a bit imprecise. I’ll try to clarify.

In order to obtain a patent you must have an idea and place it on paper. This implies that research supporting this idea has already taken place to ensure it is exercisable. Since the research has likely taken place before the patent is applied for much less granted. Any revenue collected by the patent cannot retroactively fund the research that went into creating it.

The point being that patents do not fund research. Patents provide a possible way to recoup costs of research by providing an exclusive right to exercise the patent for a limited period of time. The idea being that the entity who invented the cool idea in the patent will be able to recoup their costs by bringing it to market before any competition and as an incentive to bring it into the market.

Lonnie E. Holder says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:


I think I agree with you, with one teeny little adjustment. Patents do not pay for basic research. Patents can and do pay for some applied research (as we have called level 2 research). After applied research, terminology gets a little fuzzy. Advanced development comes after applied research, and onward. Basic research often gets left out in the cold.

Unfortunately, basic research is the engine that drives the machine, it just does so far removed from the time the actual development happens. The laser (bar code scanners, surgery, ranger finders, CD and DVD players, ad infinitum), television, and dozens (hundreds, thousands, millions?) of devices owe their existence to basic research conducted decades and perhaps even more than a century ago.

The question that some people have asked is where will the developments of the next 50 and 100 years come from? The support for basic research is probably the least it has been in a century. We may continue to innovate the heck out of the stuff we know, but that will only take us so far.

Shaun Wilson says:

Higher education

If they are really worried about this then they should forget about any innovation prize fund and instead pump the money into universities. Not only would it help get “basic research” done it should help develop a pool of skilled researchers that the companies can hire to do their own research. Without patents companies would likely need to do more research not less to maintain a competitive advantage. Ideally you would end up with a sort of arms race of innovation as true competition should inspire, and this would produce far more innovation than the current pathetic IP system provides.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: japan of yesteryear?

That’s not what is being said. If you read this post carefully and all other posts, you’ll see the theme that Mike presents is of balance. What he’s showing in this post is the overbalance or over valuing of only one small part of the entire process and how that hurts the rest of the process.

By trying to say that the post is saying we don’t need to do any new development is a fallacy. Not to mention that you can have many new “products” by refining existing ones or even radically changing their features (think computer 1 existing product that has been refined into many different products like laptops, phones, and servers).

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Re: japan of yesteryear?

AMusingFool spluttered:

So, what you’re saying is that we should become Japan of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s? We don’t really need new products, just continual refinement of existing ones?

Japan has done a lot of innovative things, from the 1960s and earlier, to the present day. They demonstrated that transistors could operate at radio frequencies. They produced cars that were energy efficient and reliable while offering good performance at a modest price. They invented the blue LED. They are pioneers in robotics.

VI says:

Re: japan of yesteryear?

Loser??? in the longterm??? Wow – why don’t we examine that concept more closely and take it into the conference room with GM, Ford, and Chrysler? Of course, according to that philosophy, if those Detroit 3 (no long the ‘big three’) can just stick it out another 30 years, THEY’LL WIN!!!!

Go team…. yeah.

Oh – the innovation of refinement IS invention. It takes a creative an inventive mindset to see AND EXECUTE the potential in an idea. I think we forget that just about ANYONE can be an ‘idea man/woman’ – I’m sure we’ve all said that we were ‘idea-men/women’ and thinkers. Why? Because, unfortunately coming up with an idea is easier than implementing it.

My two cents….

Anonymous Coward says:

I think the point here is IP policies defended by their dubious ability to foster basic research are instruments too blunt, since they simultaneously freeze mid-level innovation by creating chilling effects. The frozen innovation would be far worse than a lack of basic research, so even stipulating that our paleolithic IP policies are necessary for promoting basic research, it is still not worth the cost to innovation. Of course, whether these IP policies even help basic research is a subject under daily debate on this forum.

Matthew says:

Patents are a Symptom

Patents are a symptom and are not the root cause. The root cause is a false mentality that discoveries are difficult, expensive, and important, while implementations are easy, cheap, and unimportant. Look at the pharmaceutical industry. At the highest levels, government spends vast amounts of money to promote discovery of new drug chemistries and then provides minimal funding for the development of those discoveries into treatments and cures. Promoting recognition of the importance of implementations must be a key step in making this change happen.

Comboman says:

The market already encourages innovation

The real trick is in encouraging that ongoing innovation — those “mid-level” improvements that make products more acceptable in the market.

The market already provides all the encouragement that this type of innovation needs. Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, but the “innovated” the hell out of it and were rewarded accordingly in the marketplace. Basic research on the other hand has no short term pay off and must be incentivized in other ways. Of course, patents are only one type of incentive. Others (like sponsorship, competitions, research grants or tax credits for research work) may well be more effective. Instead of beating this dead horse about rewarding innovation (which clearly doesn’t need it), maybe you should look at alternative rewards for invention.

Anonymous Coward says:

The real trick is in encouraging that ongoing innovation — those “mid-level” improvements that make products more acceptable in the market.

And this thinking has given us an engine for our automobiles that really has not changed over the last 100 years. Another problem with not doing the basic research is even if you have a leap in understanding, you still need the building blocks of knowledge to understand how things really work.

Lonnie E. Holder says:

Basic Research - Invention - Innovation

There are three parts to this process. In a way, these three are almost like a reverse funnel.

Basic research can lead invention by decades (50 to 100 years was the number I heard in college, which sounds about right). I am concerned that we do much less basic research than we once did. We may be innovating the heck out of stuff we have already researched and invented, but eventually innovation will run out of gas without being fed by the previous two processes. Perhaps one of the greatest research facilities that ever existed (Bell Labs) no longer does basic research.

Just as basic research is a practical application of mathematics, invention is the practical expression of basic research. We have come up with some neat devices in the last half century; MRI, CAT, the microprocessor, the transistor, etc. However, these inventions were fed by basic research that extends at least a half decade earlier.

Innovation may be “the process of actually taking an idea [I read invention here rather than idea] and successfully bringing it to market in a way that people want that matters in the long run.” However, no basic research, no invention, no innovation. Well, I guess we could have innovated the heck out of the horse and buggy, but fortunately inventors had other ideas.

I see a duplication of the old argument in manufacturing companies. Marketing claims their function is the most important because they sell the product. Operations claims their function is the most important because they produce the product that is sold. Engineering claims that without their inventions and innovations, Operations would have nothing to build and Marketing would have nothing to sell.

Well, I suppose there is a bit of truth all the way around. It is hard to sell a WII that does not exist. It is hard to have a blog on an internet that does not exist.

Basic research creates building blocks whose complete purpose and function may not be known for decades and centuries. Invention and innovation are the realization of the promise of basic research. While innovation focuses on refinement, obviously there must be something to refine. We are moving into our fourth decade of refinement for personal computers, but those refinements are more than refinements, because substantial invention has spun the wheel again.

Another way to look at this:

Basic research is typically a losing proposition. It is hard to do much of anything with basic research, even though it is probably the most valuable thing we do. It is hard to get a board of directors excited about a payoff 50 or 100 years in the future.

Invention is necessary to create a useful mechanism. Without the useful mechanism, basic research looks great in a textbook and it may make a wonderful booster seat or a door stop, but not much beyond that.

Innovation, on the other hand, and along the lines of what Mike said, refines the invention and helps make more money. Note I said more money. An invention may make money (it may make a lot of money in some cases), but innovation can (because sometimes innovation is unncessary to make money) help make even more money.

You will only get a candy bar out of the machine if you put your dollar in the slot.

Lonnie E. Holder says:

Re: Basic Research != Patents


You were on a roll to your last sentence. I agree with your statement that “basic research has never had anything to do with patents.” However, if that is true, then your statement “So all the basic research the world has ever seen has been done in spite of the patent system…” How can that be? If basic research has never had anything to do with patents, then it could not be “in spite of” patents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothing Einstein did ever lead to a patent? Maybe, but how many people actually understood E=MC Squared? Einstein was a theoretical physicist. Nothing those guys do can be patented, the ones today are working on dark matter, parallel universes and such. Now there are also experimental physicists. Those guys try to prove what the theoretical physicists do. Then there are the guys who actually take the work of the first two groups to put those things into use.

Fact is, they can’t do that if the first two groups don’t do their work.

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