The role of science, technology, invention, and Innovation is indispensable for our continued prosperity. However, the path of harnessing it is neither linear nor very clear. Hence, there is a growing inequality between nations and wasteful investment. On the other hand, every country must harness it to meet the sustained growth challenge. However, there is no linear correlation between S&T indicators and profiting from invention and innovation. Such reality demands deeper insights for smarter strategy and policy.
We are very familiar with these four keywords—science, technology, invention, and innovation. Nevertheless, the fine lines between them often appear blurred. We understand that there is an intricate relation between them. To many of us, the connection seems to be top-down. However, such a top-down approach does not appear to be applicable in many situations, particularly for deriving economic benefits. How to transfer the investment made in science to drive technology invention and Product innovation for creating Wealth is not straightforward, particularly in the Market Economy.
On the one hand, competition is vital for pursuing ideas for deriving benefits from science to offer us increasingly better products. On the other hand, it makes it quite challenging to craft a pathway of turning investment in science and technology into a profitable return. Hence, how the relationship between science, technology, invention, and innovation is shaped in the market economy creates confusion, subsequently, raises curiosity. Moreover, such lack of clarity also raises debates like science vs technology, invention vs innovation, or discovery vs invention. Subsequently, both policy and investment suffer from time lag and lack of focus–leading to wasteful investment.
In perspectives–Science, Technology, Invention, and Innovation
Science deals with identifying variables and establishing a relationship between them for explaining physical phenomena. Often observations create the curiosity for knowing the science. This scientific knowledge serves two main purposes for inventing technologies and innovating products. On the one hand, science helps us to scale up technology invented through tinkering or accidental observations. For example, through tinkering, human beings invented the technology of producing fire through friction between rocks or dry wood. The discovery of underlying science led to the scale-up of the tinkering method into a controlled, easy-to-use technology.
On the other hand, in 1839, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel had a strong relationship between light and electronic properties of materials. However, he could not explain the underlying phenomenon. However, in 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper explaining the underlying science. He abstracted light energy carried in discrete quantized packets to explain experimental data from the photoelectric effect. This scientific knowledge played a vital role in inventing technologies for producing electrons in proportionate to incident photons. Many modern innovations like digital cameras, photocopiers, or laser printers have roots in this scientific discovery.
It’s obvious that the discovery of scientific knowledge is at the root of inventing technologies and also scaling up tinkering-based inventions of technologies. These technologies are at the core of innovations of products in getting our jobs done. However, profit-making competition determines the creation, flow, and accumulation of wealth produced by science, leading to technological inventions and innovations.
Innovation for Getting jobs done—the need for technology for both incremental advancement and change of technology core
Our prosperity and quality of living standards depend on the products we use to get jobs done. Hence, we are after better products, which consume fewer resources to produce. To profit from this mission, producers are after the improvement of existing technologies and inventing new ones. The advancement of existing technologies leads to Incremental innovation of products. The invention of new technology forms the foundation of innovating new products and also changing the technology core of existing products.
However, the continued discovery of underlying science determines the scalability of advancing technology. Subsequently, it determines how far we are able to keep advancing for offering better quality products at decreasing cost. For example, the discovery of scientific knowledge about solid-state physics and silicon processing chemistry has been the root strength underlying our ability to make silicon chips better and less costly. However, studies find that it’s getting increasingly costly to make a scientific discovery in advancing technologies for fueling innovations.
The emergence of technology invention in embryonic form—challenges for the linear model
Despite the greatness of scientific discovery, invented technologies invariably emerge in a primitive form. Products innovated around it show up in the primitive form. Producing profitable revenue out of it demands a long journey of technology refinement for incremental innovation advancement. For example, in 1938, Chester Carlson invented photocopying technology based on the Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery of Albert Einstein. Upon getting the patent, he failed to make the case to the potential investors that there was a profitable business opportunity for the innovation out of his invention. In fact, between 1939 and 1944, as high as 20 companies, including IBM and General Electric, turned down Mr. Carlson, as neither of those companies believed there was a significant market for photocopiers.
With the Battelle Memorial Institute’s support, Carlson kept refining his new process electrophotography over the next five years. Subsequently, in 1947, Haloid Corporation approached Battelle to obtain a license to develop and market a copying machine based on this technology. In some instances, it may take an even longer journey. In the end, in 1949, the first photocopier machine– xerographic copier Model A—appeared after 11 years of the invention of technology, 44 years of discovery of science by Albert Einstein, and 110 years of observation of the photoelectric effect by Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in 1839. Such a linear model of innovation appears to be out of the reach of many developing countries.
Science for scaling up local or frugal innovations in developing countries
Like in the past, human beings tend to innovate useful means through tinkering. Based on intuition, they integrate available component technologies to innovate useful means in getting jobs done better. However, they are not amenable to continued advancement, for being better and also cheaper. Hence, they do not scale up in offering large-scale wealth creation opportunities. To address this limitation, we should focus on advancing underlying science.
In the absence of this scientific advancement, frugal or grassroots innovations in developing countries are failing to empower developing countries in serving their purposes by consuming fewer resources. On the other hand, Thomas Alpha Edison’s tinkering-based approach of inventing carbon filament light producing technology, and subsequent light bulb innovation is still being scaled by scientific discoveries. Turning tinkering-based local innovations into scalable solutions out of scientific advancement is a bottom-up approach. To empower developing countries to scale up their local innovations, the focus should be on science for creating success out of this bottom-up approach.
Increasing prosperity and growing inequality due to science, technology, invention, and innovation
Over the last couple of centuries, there has been increasing prosperity and growing inequality between countries. Even natural resources starved countries have emerged as very high-income countries. The underlying cause has been the increasing role of scientific discovery-based ideas for inventing and advancing technologies, making tinkering-based technologies scalable, and innovating increasingly better products around them. In addition to innovating new products and improving existing ones, they are also succeeding in making such advancements by consuming fewer natural resources and labor. On the other hand, countries relying on natural resources and labor are falling behind in the competition race of producing better products at a lower cost, through imported ideas. Moreover, countries acquiring the capacity to offer better products by consuming fewer resources are attaining price-setting capability. As a result, the scope of economic uplifting out of natural resources and labor has been continuously shrinking.
Lack of integration and strategy runs the risk of wasteful investment
For benefiting from science, technology, invention, and innovation, most of the developing countries are increasing investments for making advancements in some indicators. Some of these indicators are the number of science and engineering graduates, publications, R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, and patents. However, until we profitably integrate these publications and patents into products and processes to produce them, the investment made for producing graduates and R&D does not lead to producing an economic return. In the worse case, the production of unemployed Science and Engineering graduates leads to a labor shortage.
There is no denying that developing countries must leverage science, technology, invention, and innovation to keep driving economic growth. However, there is a need for a well throughout integration between science, technology, invention, and innovation. In many cases, following the USA’s linear model of innovation runs the risk of wasteful investment. On the other hand, the focus on frugal or grassroots innovation suffers from the deficiency of scalability.