|Will innovation flourish in the future?
|by Jerome I. Friedman
Science and technology grew exponentially during the 20th century.
But will the conditions necessary for creating the kinds of innovations
that shape our lives be sustained in the future?
By definition, the word innovate means to bring in something new,
to make changes in something established. Clearly, there is a continuum
of innovation that ranges from breakthroughs that change the underpinnings
of our society to new methods or tools to solve particular problems.
The major innovations of the future, those that will shape society,
will require a foundation of strong basic research. Innovation is
the key to the future, but basic research is the key to future innovation.
And today, the future of basic research appears vulnerable.
Although applied research and invention play important roles in
innovation, they do not generally produce the major conceptual breakthroughs
necessary for creating radically new technologies. The limitation
of focused or problem-oriented research becomes apparent in the
following observation: If you know what you are looking for, you
are limited by what you know. As inventive as Thomas Edison was,
he could not have created the transistorperhaps the most important
invention of the 20th century. To elucidate this point, it is useful
to trace the transistors development.
- In the latter 19th century, scientists studied the atomic spectra
of various elements.
- In 1885, Johann Balmer discovered his formula for the spectral
lines of the hydrogen atom; the Lyman, Pfund, Brackett, and Paschen
spectral series followed.
- In 1900, Max Planck proposed the concept of the quantum in the
emission of energy; and in 1905, Albert Einstein developed the
idea of the quantum of energy in the radiation field (the photon).
- In 1911, Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus in
alpha-particle scattering experiments and confirmed the planetary
model of the atom.
- Two years later, Niels Bohr developed a semiclassical model
of the hydrogen atom based on a quantization of the electron orbit;
it accounted for the observed discrete spectra of hydrogen and
established a new model for the atoms stability.
- In 1925 and 1926, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger
developed quantum mechanics.
- In 1928, Felix Bloch applied the full machinery of quantum mechanics
to the problem of conduction in solids, spearheading the development
of the modern theory of solids.
- In 1929, Walter Schottky and others found electron holes
in the valenceband structure of semiconductors, uncovering the
mechanism of semiconductor behavior.
- In 1933, solid-state diodes were used as receiving rectifiers.
- In the late 1930s and early 1940s, investigators began doping
silicon and germanium to create new semiconductors.
- In 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain took out a patent
for the transistor, and William Schockley applied for a patent
for the transistor effect and a transistor amplifier.
- In 1951, semiconductors entered the world market. Four years
later, transistors had replaced nearly all tubes.
- In 1959, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby invented the integrated
This example demonstrates how basic research established the foundations
of the technological revolution created by the invention of the
transistor. Brattain said it clearly: The transistor came
about because fundamental knowledge had developed to a stage where
human minds could understand phenomena that had been observed for
a long time. In the case of a device with such important consequences
to technology, it is noteworthy that a breakthrough came from work
dedicated to the understanding of fundamental physical phenomena,
rather than the cut-and-try method of producing a useful device.
Ironically, quantum mechanicsan abstruse conceptual framework
in physics that was developed to explain the structure of the atomcame
to underlie some of our most important technologies. It has contributed
to the development of the Internet, computers, lasers, consumer
electronics, atomic clocks, and superconductors, to mention a few.
In addition to basic research, applied research and product development
played crucial roles in the transistors development. New technologies
clearly cannot be created without a synthesis of all three. And
often the boundaries between these types of research get blurred.
Sometimes applied research leads to important basic knowledge, and
technologies developed for basic research lead to broader applications.
Accelerators, for example, were invented to study the interactions
of subatomic particles; and now various types are used for such
diverse applications as cancer therapy, studying the structure of
viruses, designing new drugs, and the fabrication of semiconductors
Other examples include the Global Positioning System, nuclear
medicine, and diagnostic tools such as magnetic resonance imaging.
The World Wide Web provides an especially interesting example. Based
on the concept of the Internet, it was developed at CERN (the European
Organization for Nuclear Research) to enable high-energy physicists
worldwide to exchange data and programs and to work together more
effectively. The rapidly developing Web is changing the way we communicate,
teach, and do business and is promoting economic growth in many
parts of the world.
It is also accelerating advances in scientific knowledge and innovation,
and it has dramatically changed the scientific landscape. The Web
spreads scientific information much faster than printed scientific
journals do, and this speeds the flow of work. For example, the
human genome is available online to any molecular biologist with
a computer connected to the Internet. The Web is also having an
effect on economic growth through its impact on scientific research
and innovation. This raises the question of the relationship between
research and the gross domestic product.
Economists have studied the impact of research on various measures
of wealth or well being, which reflect the economic impact of the
innovations derived from research. They have estimated that one-half
to two-thirds of the economic growth of developed nations is knowledge-based.
Recent studies have estimated that the average annual rate of return
on R&D investment ranges from 28% to 50%, depending on the assumptions
used. Although there is uncertainty in these numbers, there is general
agreement that the impact is huge and that past investment in research
has paid for itself many times over.
In the United States and in other countries, university research
has generated technology- based industries and a large number of
jobs. A 1997 study found that Massachusetts Institute of Technology
alumni, faculty, and staff have founded more than 4,000 companies
during the last four decades, which employ more than 1.1 million
people and have annual world sales of $232 billion. Most of these
companies are knowledge based. This emphasizes the necessity of
keeping research universities strong to maintain a high level of
innovation. They provide the scientific workforce of the future;
they are the source of most of the research that drives major innovation;
and young people with new ideas start many new companies after leaving
Creativity is the basis of all innovation, and although it is doubtful
that it can be taught, creativity should be nurtured in those who
have it. Innovation ultimately depends on a scientifically and technologically
creative workforce. Thus, in addition to strong research universities,
there should be pre-university schools of excellence that bring
together the best young minds to introduce them early to science
and give them opportunities for creative work. Corporations and
government research agencies should support special educational
projects, such as science fairs for young students. Many outstanding
young scientists participated in science fairs as high school students.
Here are some other suggestions for enhancing innovation:
- Young people should be given good support and freedom in their
research. They are the greatest source of scientific creativity
because they are not as committed to existing scientific orthodoxy,
and they have the energy and enthusiasm to push new ideas. As
the zoologist Konrad Lorenz once said, The best morning
exercise for a researcher is to cast off one favorite hypothesis
ever y day before breakfast. The young do this better than
- We should willingly take risks in supporting new projects. The
tendency is to play it safe when funding is low, but we need to
remember that the greatest risks have the greatest payoffs. In
addition, individuals or small groups should be given sufficient
latitude to develop new ideas, which take time and are often only
accepted with difficulty by others.
- People who innovate should get recognition and appropriate compensation
for what they do, especially young people.
- We should not allow institutional boundaries to impede interdisciplinary
research. Some of the most important innovations of the future
can be expected from such collaborations. Excessive bureaucracy
is distracting, time-consuming, and destructive to creativity.
The scientific and technology communities must also address another
set of issues. As science and technology advance, we see a growing
public concern about their social and cultural consequences. There
are fears about whether future developments in robotics, genetic
engineering, and nanotechnology, for example, will enhance the welfare
of humankind or prove to be a Faustian bargain. Such fears are causing
a technological backlash, especially in developed nations. The science
and technology communities must engage in these discussions, be
completely open to listening to such concerns, and assess and address
them. If we do not listen and respond, we will lose the public as
All of these recommendations for protecting and enhancing future
innovation assume an appropriately funded research environment.
But who will support basic research in the future? Industry, which
previously supported a significant amount, no longer does so because
global competition has put an enormous amount of economic pressure
Private industry makes R&D investments that are expected to
pay off in 5 to 7 years. but it wont make the 20- to 30-year
investments necessary to create entirely new industries. Such long-term
investments in R&D have been cut as firms have merged and downsized.
Companies that once did long-term R&D, such as AT&T and
IBM, have seen their industries become highly competitive. To compete,
they have largely withdrawn from supporting basic research.
Patents are a strong indicator of innovation. A 1997 study funded
by the National Science Foundation found strong evidence that publicly
financed scientific research plays a large role in the breakthroughs
of industrial innovation in the United States. It reported that
73% of the main science papers cited by American industrial patents
in two prior years involved domestic and foreign research financed
by government or nonprofit agencies. Such publicly financed science,
the study concluded, has turned into a fundamental pillar of industrial
advance. This shows the close connection between national science
budgets and the economy, and points to the importance of establishing
good bridges between universities, government, and industrial laboratories.
Of all the types of research, basic research is the most vulnerable.
It is a risky activity that seeks scientific knowledge for its own
sake without thought of practical ends, and neither its outcome
nor its applications can be predicted in advance. Even great scientists
have fallen woefully short in making such predictions. Ernest Rutherford,
discoverer of the atomic nucleus, said in 1933, "Anyone who
expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is
talking moonshine." Nine years later, Enrico Fermi produced
the first self-sustaining chain reaction.
In addition, there are often long delays in the applications that
arise from basic research, such as occurred in the invention of
the transistor. Because of these factors, the public and many political
leaders do not fully understand the importance of basic research.
With the exception of biomedical research, basic research generally
does not rank high among a nation's priorities. The public and political
leaders seem to recognize that it is important to understand how
nature works in all domains and at all levels. But given the needs
of society, this argument is not sufficiently persuasive to convince
political leaders to make the needed investment in basic research.
They want to hear about applications, economic growth, and competitiveness.
We can make such arguments; but if they want examples, we can only
talk about the past because we cannot make specific promises about
the future. We can tell them, however, that throughout history,
advances in scientific knowledge have resulted in revolutions in
technology that have improved the standard of living and changed
our way of life. Although direct benefits from basic research generally
require several decades, they do come. Electricity and magnetism
were laboratory curiosities in the early 1800s and did not become
a factor in people's lives until more than half a century later.
And there are many other examples.
It is clear to me that under the right conditions, future technologies
will be created that we cannot even imagine. Think of someone in
the year 1900 trying to imagine what would exist in the year 2000.
The developments so familiar to us today would be inconceivable
to this individual then. Even developments of current technology
are difficult to foresee. Who, in 1987, would have been able to
predict the World Wide Web, which started in 1990?
Nonetheless, we can safely say that there certainly will be profound
innovations in many current technologies. These areas include biotechnology,
energy production, computation, artificial intelligence, robotics,
miniaturization, communication, sensors, and materials. Although
not all human problems can be fixed by technology because of their
political nature, many of them could be significantly alleviated
by major technological innovations.
The challenges faced by science and technology today are crucial
for the future of humankind. They include:
- Improving the general health of the world population.
- Understanding ecological and environmental issues and providing
guidance to policy makers.
- Providing sufficient food for the world's rapidly growing population.
- Developing alternative sources of energy and substitutes for
increasingly scarce natural resources.
- Providing new technologies to enhance the quality of life of
our citizens while extending those benefits to regions and groups
that have not yet shared in them.
To achieve these goals, we must provide sufficient support for
continued progress in basic science, applied science, and engineering.
We have to expand our base of knowledge and provide our young people
with an education that will enable them to utilize and further expand
this knowledge and produce the innovations we need for the future.
Jerome I. Friedman is a professor
of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge
and shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1990. This article has
been adapted from his keynote address at a conference titled "Infrastructure
for e-Business, e-Education, e-Science, and e-Medicine" that
was held at the Scuola Superiore G. Reiss Romoli in L¡'Aquila,
Italy, July 29-August 4, 2002.