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.

Filed Under: amar bhide, basic research, innovation, veturesome economy


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  1. identicon
    Lonnie E. Holder, 3 Dec 2008 @ 1:32pm

    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.

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