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Impact of Basic Research and Knowledge Diffusion on Innovation

by Peter Lincoln on Mon, May 09, 2011

Impact of Basic Research and Knowledge Diffusion on Innovation


In June 2009, OSTIBLOG published a piece submitted by a friend of OSTI on “Impact of Basic Research on Innovation”.  Subsequently, a number of readers remarked that the blog had not made a key point particularly relevant to OSTI: to have an impact on innovation, basic research results must be shared. 

To be sure, it is rarely possible to determine precisely when, where and how the dissemination of scientific and technical information impacts the continuum of basic research to applied research to invention and innovation, but there is no question that such dissemination is a prerequisite for the flow of scientific information necessary for discovery, progress and prosperity.

With this key point included, here is a revised version of the earlier blog:

The development of MP3 technologies illustrates the unexpected benefits of basic research – and how science progresses and innovation advances when knowledge is shared.

In 1965, a hand-sized storage and playback device that would hold 15,000 recorded songs was the stuff of science fiction. Even simple hand-held calculators were rare and expensive at that time.

Then, as the chart on this page shows, research funded by several federal science agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), contributed to the breakthrough technologies of magnetic storage drives, lithium-ion batteries and the liquid crystal dislay, which came together in the development of MP3 devices. 

The MP3’s DRAM cache traces its origins to the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) system and circuit design pioneered in basic research undertaken by IBM and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Basic research sponsored by the Army Research Office helped revolutionize the field of signal processing, enabling the MP3’s signal compression, while liquid crystal research funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of Defense led to development of thin film transistor LCD displays used in MP3s.  

The MP3’s micro hard drive storage was enabled by the discovery of the “giant magnetorestive (GMR) effect” and the creation of the field of spintronics, which grew out of basic research in thin-film metallic multi-layers funded by DOE.  And the MP3’s lithium-ion battery was made possible by DOE-funded basic research in electrochemistry.  

 The MP3 device itself is innovative, but it built upon a broad platform of component technologies, each derived from fundamental studies in physical science, mathematics, and engineering.  As information about all this R&D was shared, science advanced and creativity was sustained.

Walt Warnick is Director of the DOE Office of Science and Technical Information (OSTI).  Peter M. Lincoln is Senior Advisor in OSTI.

Other Related Topics: DARPA, innovation, MP3. VLSI
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