Science, Technology and Innovation

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Policy Sci DOI 10.1007/s11077-011-9137-3

Science, technology and innovation in a 21st century context John H. Marburger III

Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2011

This editorial essay was prepared by John H. ‘‘Jack’’ Marburger for a workshop on the ‘‘science of science and innovation policy’’ held in 2009 that was the basis for this special issue. It is published posthumously. Linking the words ‘‘science,’’ ‘‘technology,’’ and ‘‘innovation,’’ may suggest that we know more about how these activities are related than we really do. This very common linkage implicitly conveys a linear progression from scientific research to technology creation to innovative products. More nuanced pictures of these complex activities break them down into components that interact with each other in a multi-dimensional socio-technologicaleconomic network. A few examples will help to make this clear. Science has always functioned on two levels that we may describe as curiosity-driven and need-driven, and they interact in sometimes surprising ways. Galileo’s telescope, the paradigmatic instrument of discovery in pure science, emerged from an entirely pragmatic tradition of lens-making for eye-glasses. And we should keep in mind that the industrial revolution gave more to science than it received, at least until the last half of the nineteenth century when the sciences of chemistry and electricity began to produce serious economic payoffs. The flowering of science during the era, we call the enlightenment owed much to its links with crafts and industry, but as it gained momentum science created its own need for practical improvements. After all, the frontiers of science are defined by the capabilities of instrumentation, that is, of technology. The needs of pure science are a huge but poorly understood stimulus for technologies that have the capacity to be disruptive precisely because these needs do not arise from the marketplace. The innovators who built the World Wide Web on the foundation of the Internet were particle physicists at CERN, struggling to satisfy their unique need to share complex information. Others soon discovered ‘‘needs’’ of which they had been unaware that could be satisfied by this innovation, and from that point the Web transformed the Internet from a tool for the technological elite into a broad platform for a new kind of economy. John H. Marburger III—deceased J. H. Marburger III (&) Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, USA

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Policy Sci

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but in all human societies, ‘‘necessity’’ is a mix of culturally conditioned perceptions and the actual physical necessities of life. The concept of need, of what is wanted, is the ultimate driver of markets and an essential dimension of innovation. And as the example of the World Wide Web shows, need is very difficult to identify before it reveals itself in a mass movement. Why did I not know I needed a cell phone before nearly everyone else had one? Because until many others had one I did not, in fact, need one. Innovation has this chicken-and-egg quality that makes it extremely hard to analyze. We all know of visionaries who conceive of a society totally transformed by their invention and who are bitter that the world has not embraced their idea. Sometimes we think of them as crackpots, or simply unrealistic about what it takes to change the world. We practical people necessarily view the world through the filter of what exists, and fail to anticipate disruptive change. Nearly always we are surprised by the rapid acceptance of a transformative idea. If we truly want to encourage innovation through government policies, we are going to have to come to grips with this deep unpredictability of the mass acceptance of a new concept. Works analyzing this phenomenon are widely popular under titles like ‘‘The Tipping Point’’ by Gladwell (2000) or more recently the book by Taleb (2007) called The Black Swan, among others. What...
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