by Dr. Jeffrey Salmon on Mon, 24 Mar, 2014
Recently, I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. on the topic of innovation – how it comes about, what factors can impede it, where the U.S. might be headed as a lead innovator in the 21st Century, and what cultural and ethical issues need to be considered in a complete understanding of innovation.
As a science and technology agency, the Department of Energy (DOE) cares a great deal about questions surrounding innovation. As an information management agency within DOE, the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) works to accelerate innovation through the sharing of knowledge. We also love to point out where DOE has done just that.
The discussion at Hudson on innovation was rich and multi-layered. But there were a set of key ideas and arguments that should be of particular interest to DOE and OSTI.
Organization and Innovation. What kind of organization best drives innovation? The answer is not completely clear. Is innovation or rapid development of technology more likely to come about today through a large, multidisciplinary enterprise, such as our DOE national laboratories, i.e. “big science,” or through a nimble, relatively small market-shaped group of entrepreneurs? But even this way of posing the question isn’t precise. It could be that the requirements for basic research today call for big science, but that application of that research to technology development is more likely to flourish where customer feedback is immediate and the consequences of failure brutal. Certainly, something like this latter point was strongly suggested in the think-tank conversation. Still there are gradations of technology development, and understanding when something is poised for market deployment is very difficult.
Innovation in Energy. While the extraordinary economic impact of innovation in the IT world was a major point of discussion, innovation in the energy industry, especially how we now extract unconventional fossil fuels, was highlighted in the discussion. Here, everyone recognized the transformational effect of hydraulic fracturing – fracking – on not just the U.S. but the global energy market. It is well worth thinking about how this came about and what role DOE played in this energy revolution. It is certainly a tricky matter to draw a direct line from government research funding in geology or drilling technologies to the natural gas revolution. It is trickier still to draw that line from some basic research in materials, for example, and this success story. Nevertheless, there have been several studies suggesting a link between DOE support for extraction related technology R&D (see for example, the Breakthrough Institute’s “U.S. Government Role in Shale Gas Fracking History”), and there are many indirect links as well. The investigation of these links should certainly be connected to the previously noted question of organizational structure and innovation.
The Role of Basic Research. The need for basic scientific research as a foundation for innovation appeared to be a widely accepted notion. But to me, more work in this arena seemed to be needed. Curiosity-driven research in fundamental physics, a major DOE mission, for example, has to be justified on broad grounds, not simply tied to its role in technological innovation. The discussion at Hudson, while acknowledging the role of basic research, tended to see the field’s strongest justification tied to near-term applications that will stimulate innovation and economic growth. The Large Hadron Collider in Europe and a host of other high energy and nuclear physics projects cannot easily make such a connection; their justification, while strong, lies elsewhere. Still, there is little question that ultimately our strength as an innovation society will rest to some extent on our willingness to invest in foundational science. Defining basic research, how it flourishes, how it is impeded, and why it is important is a discussion as valuable as the one about innovation itself.
Again, these three issues do not exhaust the scope of the discussion that took place at the Hudson Institute session. As interesting, but beyond the scope of this blog, were issues associated with America’s future as an innovator and whether all innovation of technology is a good that we should desire. Nevertheless, there was much food for thought in this session.
Dr. Jeffrey Salmon is Deputy Director for Resource Management in the Department of Energy Office of Science.