Our belief is innovation derives from a metastable environment where a dynamic admixture of several types of inventive individuals operate together in a sea of creativity where diverse ideas from many disciplines and perspectives must be integrated and tested together. Key types of people include (1) boffin inventors, who generate large numbers of ideas most of which will be impractical, (2) multidisciplinary synthesizers or technology spotters who can connect apparently disparate ideas from widely diverse sources into technology nuggets and (3) technology facilitators (idea rationalisers or idea engineers and technicians) who can distill tangible, testable concepts and bring a technology to market in the prevailing economic climate without inhibiting the sometimes chaotic idea generation process. Many avenues must be explored and large numbers of free ranging ideas generated to take the initial invention through the proof of concept, refinement and finally technology transfer to industry.
All inventor types must coexist together!
For optimal creativity, the innovation process is neither too organic nor too organized with trust, equal say, and confidence among participants being essential. A key facet of our process is that the facilitators of the team ensure that ideas from even mild mannered or junior participants are heard. Just as with art and culture, freedom of expression is essential in the invention process. Structures or traditions that formalize process or compartmentalize key players will stifle creativity and invention and age and experience are often not good indicators of entrepreneurial activity. Key players are as likely to be students as staff. We have found many activities including game playing, Myers-Briggs style personality exercises and plain old beer and green tea drinking sessions all help to free up ideas for the technology spotters to pounce on, and the rationalisers to develop. This process is very difficult to organize on a large scale so generally has to operate within self managed teams of around 5 to 10 inventive folk, which provide sufficient multidisciplinary expertise but are not too large and thus ensure effective communication. This perhaps is why disproportionately; smaller organizations are more inventive than larger better resourced ones. Thus, the key players of an innovative team must come from a range of disciplines and have a wide range of personalities. Innovation and invention should be an objective, not an accidental by-product of other activities.
Innovation is the third leg of the main activities of a modern university and can be as effective as traditional academic research as a primary vehicle for developing and training staff. We have found that a mix of basic academic research with all its unpredictability and organic creativity together with applied research focussed at solving real word problems and commercialisation of some of the research outputs can be an effective and stimulating combination that provides a stimulating environment as well as additional crucial resources to fund that unpredictable basic academic activity.
Many countries around the world are trying to get more applications, technologies and end use, commercial, bang for their buck out of their universities, but the road to successful application or use of academic research is long, divided, winding and bumpy. That there is a need for technological and sociological solutions to our problems is never more evident, with the recent paper by the Ehrlichs (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2013), painting an accurate but disturbing picture of our situation. For those of us seeking to be part of the solution it has been clear for some time that our traditional academic outputs of trained students and academic papers and theses, while part of that solution, are no longer an adequate end point of all our work. So what does success and solutions look like in an area of applicable research activity. Well that’s complex and diverse too.
What have the universities done for us?
Well there is no doubt we increase the stock of useful knowledge and that alone is success, as with unpredictable and long timelines, basic research and its record as academic papers and theses, can in unimaginable ways produce technologies and solutions far in future. There are many examples of this, Rutherford’s discovery of the radioactive half-life, and nuclear power for example, separated by half a century. Scientific and engineering knowledge is collective, additive and international and it is often impossible to decide which aspects of research have contributed to particular innovations, with time lags between basic and applied research and its applications sometimes short (e.g. the Manhattan project) or long (e.g. the disk drive). The Royal Society report on “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity” (Royal Society, 2010) gives many excellent examples of the complex and unpredictable relationship between basic curiosity driven research and practical solutions to problems. Thus, Michael Faraday, a leading light of 19th century science, elucidated the principles of electromagnetism and built the first dynamo. Explaining a discovery to Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, Faraday was supposedly asked, ’But after all, what use is it?’’. “Why sir, there is every probability you will be able to tax it’ was the reply”! Faraday’s ideas were taken forward by many over the centuries, including Fert and Grünberg who received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on giant magneto-resistance. Their 1988 discovery revolutionized the way that computers store information and led to hard drives, laptops, iPods and goodness knows what, and a lot of taxes for sure! So in any innovation system, curiosity driven research is a must, its outputs cannot be guaranteed to be monetisable on any political timeframe, but it is the feedstock of all innovation. Focusing on short term applications of research alone is not an effective strategy, but an equally ineffective strategy is focusing solely on basic research. In our programs we need to see a balance with the center of mass shifted towards practical solutions.
What else constitutes success in university applied research activities?
Well we have already mentioned supply of skilled graduates and researchers, and that of course has been the backbone and major strategic purpose of Canadian university policy for many decades. Next to the Gray Cup, the RCMP and poutine, HQP (skilled graduates and researchers) is a uniquely Canadian product. Canada stands in the top 10 of countries for research citations and the Canadian resource industry has been well staffed by the trained people from our universities. Much of the value of science and engineering and related social sciences, stems from the trained people themselves as they move through the economy. So production of HQP and increasing the stock of useful knowledge are two lines of success for our work. However, for the system as a whole, HQP, paper production and eminence is no longer enough, given the immense challenges we face. We have to provide actual solutions as well!
Universities are now expected to be involved in the creation of new firms, creation of new instrumentation and methodologies, contribute to policy analysis and development, enhance our problem-solving capacity and crucially develop networks and stimulate social interaction and perhaps most importantly, provide knowledge and perspective to society. This is a challenge for us as our structures, incentive schemes, self focused cultures and reward systems are based around quite different objectives and traditions to those needed now in our grand century of challenge. While our scientific traditions date largely from the 17th Century and there is much for us still to follow there, our universities and academic structures and cultural habits are still based heavily on concepts developed by monks in the Middle ages. While some of these traditions are valuable, many of our structures are no longer appropriate yet they persist into the 21st century which is likely to be humankind’s most challenging century ever! How do university researchers become part of the solution! Well, the debate over the value of basic and applied research is to my mind a side show. There is good research and some of it is applicable. The problem is that much of the “applied science and engineering” that is done is never applied. Why is that? One reason is that it never gets close enough to industry for it to be useful and other reason is that industry is so focused on the here and now that it hasn’t been able to see the benefits of working more closely with universities to take advantage of all that investment in new knowledge.
So as a researcher in Energy Research or Carbon Management what might my outputs be, in addition to my fine papers and theses?
Well, spinout companies, patents and employees are a reasonable expectation from some projects. From all projects, even the basic research ones, an expectation of a focus on solutions is where we have to be and closer engagements with industry than we have perhaps engaged with before. Many of the pioneers of science, in the centuries before the 20th century, when modern academia as we know today appeared, were actually very practical people in addition to being basic research pioneers. Thus Newton, Wren and Hooke all had substantial applied roles and day jobs and Humphrey Davey, when he wasn’t discovering elements, was inventing the miner’s lamp. He might well have said:
“Try and be brilliant, but at least be useful!” Our crises are such that I think that’s a good rallying cry for those involved in carbon management research.
Steve Larter, February 2013.
Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich (2013). Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?. Proc. R. Soc. B 2013 280, 20122845, published online 8 January 2013.
The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity. RS Policy document 02/10. Issued: March 2010 DES1768. ISBN: 978-0-85403-818-3.© The Royal Society, 2010
Technologies commercialised through Profero Energy Inc., which seeks to convert heavy oil to methane or hydrogen or convert injected carbon dioxide as methane and recover energy as a lower carbon emission.
UTI & AICISE
Technologies commercialised through University Technologies International (UTI) or via AICISE which seek to improve bitumen recovery while reducing carbon emission associated with production.