Does basic science drive technological innovation?

Oct. 26, 2015

Technological innovation rarely requires basic science, according to Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords and author of the forthcoming The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. In an essay in The Wall Street Journal, he contends that tinkerers, not researchers, create most technological breakthroughs. “Heretical as it may sound, ‘basic science’ isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think,” he writes.

The essay is fascinating and well worth reading, but Ridley never convincingly proves his thesis, except in a very narrow sense. Tinkerers may build the first crude prototypes, but a lot of fundamental research lies between Edison’s incandescent lamp and today’s emerging high-density InGaN micro-LED arrays.

He begins by noting that had Edison died of electric shock before building a practical light bulb, one of a score of other tinkerers would have done so at about the same time. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the same day. (He correctly notes that patents can grant too much credit to individuals and corporations.)

A similar situation attends to basic research. Ridley writes, “Boyle’s law in English-speaking countries is the same thing as Mariotte’s Law in French-speaking countries,” and Newton and Leibniz invented the calculus independently and at about the same time.

True, but this just demonstrates that there is no one indispensable researcher or tinkerer—it has no bearing on whether basic research is necessary for technical innovation.

In trying to make this case, Ridley cites what science writer Kevin Kelly calls the “technium”—an evolving organism consisting of our collective machinery. “Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities,” Ridley writes, adding that by 2010 the Internet had as many hyperlinks as the brain has synapses. Consequently, technology is “…an evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge….”

But here Ridley glosses over the role of basic research in technology’s evolution. In fact, Ridley does not really discount the role of basic research at all. He ultimately in the essay gets to his true point: he is opposed to publically funded research.

“To most people, the argument for public funding of science rests on a list of the discoveries made with public funds, from the Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle physics at CERN in Switzerland),” he writes. “But that is highly misleading.”

He continues, “…we can never know what discoveries were not made because government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding, which might have had different priorities.”

A fair point worth discussing—but it’s not the same as discounting the role of basic research in technological evolution.

In the semiconductor industry, many large companies have funded their own research, but research centers like imec and CEA-Leti have leveraged public and private investment to make significant breakthroughs. Basic research, organic technological evolution, and public and private investment will all have roles to play as technology moves forward.

About the Author

Rick Nelson | Contributing Editor

Rick is currently Contributing Technical Editor. He was Executive Editor for EE in 2011-2018. Previously he served on several publications, including EDN and Vision Systems Design, and has received awards for signed editorials from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He began as a design engineer at General Electric and Litton Industries and earned a BSEE degree from Penn State.

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