Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Dynamics of Discovery

From Archimedes to Edison, attempts to improve quality of life have dictated a need for advances in science and technology. These advances are now widely understood as the key enablers of increasingly prosperous societies.

Despite this long history, the process of managing the expanding frontiers of new knowledge in a way that will benefit society is a work in progress. This is largely due to the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery most famously illustrated by Archimedes, when, upon stepping into the bath, he suddenly realised that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the submerged portion of his body.

His discovery provided the solution to the previously intractable problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects and led to further advances in assessing the density and purity of precious metals among other things. In the modern world little has changed in how new knowledge is acquired. However, in an attempt to get the best value for their limited investments, governments have devised processes to manage its discovery.

Interestingly there has been a propensity to divide scientific research into a one-dimensional continuum starting with pure (sometimes known as blue-skies) research progressing through to applied research and on to technology transfer; the defining characteristic of pure research being that it seeks new knowledge with no view as to its application, while applied research seeks solutions to industrial problems.

Such a continuum has been the basis of R&D funding prioritisation in advanced economies around the world since it was promulgated by Vannevar Bush following World War II. In the past few years this mindset has been challenged as it does not accurately reflect the process of science and technology development.

The dynamic nature of the discovery of new knowledge and its commercial application can be observed in the remarkable career of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose breakthroughs ranged from the first rabies and anthrax vaccines to paving the way for germ theory and pasteurisation. Pasteur was not driven by a quest for new knowledge for its own sake but was motivated by a desire to better understand and solve the problems of industry.

In his early career, he concentrated largely on uncovering new knowledge, but as he did so, came across other, previously unforeseen questions. While working as a chemist at the age of 22 he sought a theoretical understanding of why tartaric acid crystals derived from bio-mass rotated the plane of polarised light while the chemically synthesised form did not.

His experiments revealed that the naturally occurring compound is chiral, meaning its molecules exist in one of two possible crystal structures, each the mirror image of the other. In the process of uncovering this new knowledge, he laid the building blocks for the modern experimental science of crystallography, which is today used in one form or another in everything from gemstone cutting to DNA analysis.

Pasteur’s remarkable career uncovered whole new branches of science – such as microbiology – and, as he developed as a scientist, he began to seek to satisfy both theoretical and practical goals.

Of particular note is the fact that as the problems Pasteur chose to solve became increasingly applied in nature, the nature of his research became more fundamental. Pasteur’s research agenda was use-inspired. Understanding and exploiting the dichotomy between applied and theoretical goals is perhaps the reason behind the breadth of his contribution.

This philosophy is instructive for modern policymakers seeking to get the most from limited investment funds and move away from the outmoded, linear model. The effective management of applied research operations is much more complicated than simplistic models suggest.

Modified from a contribution in Solutions. Discovery

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