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Innovation: from new knowledge to new products

By Robert May - posted Thursday, 28 November 2002

Our daily lives, at home, at work and in the marketplace, have changed hugely over the last 50 years. Human life-spans have increased, for instance, from a global life expectancy at birth of 46 years half a century ago, to 64 years today, and world food production has doubled over the past 35 years, on only 10 per cent more land.

The dominant driver for such changes has been new knowledge, and its translation into new ways of doing things. So how can we improve this process of innovation and therefore more deliberately choose what kind of tomorrow we want to create, with the possibilities that science offers, rather than just letting things happen?

The interaction between new knowledge and new products is complex and often far from straightforward. But the UK Government's White Paper on ‘Excellence and Opportunity: a Science and Innovation Policy for the 21st Century’, published two years ago, provides some useful pointers. It suggests that "to be a successful nation we must make sure our science base is strong and excellent, that we have the facility to quickly transform the fruits of scientific research and invention into products and services that people need to improve their well-being and quality of life, and we must do all this in a way that has public support and involvement".


As the White Paper acknowledges, public funding is crucial. I believe governments invest in basic science for three main reasons. First, to gain new knowledge thus created. Although this knowledge is a classic ‘public good’, the producing country or organisation does usually enjoy potential advantages in acquiring it first, as economic studies have shown. Second, to buy a ticket into the wider club of knowledge-producers. Third, and most important, such investment produces successive cadres of trained young people, some of whom are cycled back into the knowledge-producing process, while others carry its fruits out into business, industry, the City, public service, and elsewhere.

With this investment, academic and other institutions then need to manage research in basic science in a way that stimulates creativity and obtains the best value for their money. The most important thing is to create institutional cultures in which the best young people are free to express their creativity and set their own agendas, rather than being entrained in hierarchies of deference to their seniors, no matter how distinguished these may be. Such cultures are most easily maintained on university campuses, thoroughly infested as they are with the irreverent young.

But realising the potential of this basic research is not easy. It is sometimes suggested that innovation flows from publicly-funded basic research to product-developing and privately-funded industry. However, the networks and links which bring public and private, researchers and industries, together are complex and subject to a variety of market failures. As the UK White Paper recognises, government "cannot and should not attempt to manage these networks but it can play a critical role in facilitating their creation".

One such initiative to foster these links is the UK Foresight Programme, bringing together academia and business to consider likely future developments. This exercise can help academics see new and interesting problems in industry, and industrialists realise the resources that academic researchers can offer. Over the past decade, since Foresight was launched, the practical links between universities and industry have doubled in the UK.

Investing in basic science and seizing opportunities to innovate is not enough to guarantee a better world. We increasingly recognise the unintended adverse consequences of our well-intentioned actions, such as ever expanding human populations, agricultural intensification resulting in decreasing biological diversity, and global climate change produced by greenhouse gases.

These worries have been partly responsible for creating a crisis in public trust, which is one of the greatest challenges facing scientific policymakers today. The UK Government has responded by implementing ‘Guidelines for Scientific Advice and Policy Making’. Their central principle is openness and transparency, engaging dissident voices in debates, while striving to manage risks in a proportionate manner, subject to acknowledged uncertainties.


So, to secure public confidence, the professional activities of scientists and engineers, and more importantly, undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, must reflect the need to engage not only with technical issues, but also with ethical questions and public concerns. However good our innovative ideas and delivery may be, they will have difficulty in being realised if general public assent is not secured through thoughtful and open discussion.

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This article is based on Lord May's keynote address to the 2002 Symposium of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering "Owning Innovation – From Idea to Delivery" on 18 November. First published in The Canberra Times on November 27, 2002.

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About the Author

Lord May of Oxford is the Australian-born President of the Royal Society, the UK national academy of sciences, and was Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government 1995-2000.

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