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Intellectual roots of innovation: some myths and some facts, with implications for the third millennium.

As we prepare to enter the third millennium, we are faced with "an increasingly global economy marked by frequent bursts of technological innovation and profound technical change". Canada must meet more vigorous challenges in the ferociously competitive world markets. Also at home with the national markets open to free trade with the US, it will become increasingly more difficult to survive, let alone thrive, even in our own courtyard. It is generally recognized that the key to our preparation to meet this new situation is a vastly-expanded and more intense research and development R&D), especially in the industrial sector. Even before these new challenges arose, Canadian R&D was generally accepted to be rather weak. The successive Canadian governments have at various times set national goals such as gross expenditures on research and development (GERD) reaching 2.51/c of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 1985. The tragic fact is, however, that despite lip service to R&D by all the Canadian governments for the last 20 years, we are today exactly where were were in 1971: 1.3217 of GDP. All other industrial countries spend nearly twice that amount and some countries such as Sweden (with a population comparable to that of Ontario) and Switzerland (with a population comparable to that of Quebec) have reached almost 3% level. Crucial as it may be, the paltry nature of R&D funding in Canada is not the focus here. I wish to reiterate and amplify my previous analysis (2) of some other vital questions connected with R&D in Canada.

Buying Technology

In order to buy technology wisely and purposefully, one has to have highly-qualified people active in the forefront research.

These are the people who have skills, know-how and professional stature to evaluate the complex new technologies before every journalist starts writing about them. One may very well ask as to why do we need such forefront scientists to buy technology? First of all, it must be realized that buying new technology is not like buying something from Sears' catalogue. What to buy? Where to find it? How to sift, critically, the mass of conflicting information available from all sorts of sources? How to get an insider's skillful point of view in evaluating new technology? A point of view developed by interaction with other scientists on equal footing (scientists from other countries will not interact with know-nothings!), by being in and into the latest conference proceedings, newsletters, oral presentations and discussions at professional meetings, etc., and, by being up, of course, on journals and patents. It is only active scientists of forefront stature who can decide these questions.

Now the second important fact bearing on the above questions is that no country has become industrially viable by buying technology. Contrary to the common myths, Japan develops most of its own technology and carries out its own research, including fundamental science. It is true that it does lag behind, given the level of the investment of its resources in science and technology, in the Nobel-class research. Japan does realize this weakness, however, and its root cause - the regimented educational system which produces exceptionally skillful practitioners in engineering, physics, chemistry, medicine, mathematics and computer sciences, etc., but kills the potential for curiosity-oriented fundamental research which is the fountainhead of new technology. Japan is trying to correct this flaw in its system by creating nuclei of American-style research containing an anti-authoritarian, almost-anarchic atmosphere of intellectual ferment and free-wheeling research. A number of exchange programmes have also been instituted with the USA. Very recently, Japan has established, or is in the process of negotiating, the creation of new institutes of research in collaboration with Oxford University, with Imperial College London, and the famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. Japan is very serious about entering the high-stakes game for the Nobel prizes. And, so is South Korea. It is obvious to them that new technology needs new science.

Market-Driven or Ideas-Driven

An overpowering perception has been promoted in seminars and discussions that "all industrial innovation is market-driven", that all research should be done in partnership with industry which is close to the market and 'hence knows innovation'. This attitude gained currency with the election of conservative governments in Britain and the States and has acquired further momentum in Canada with the victory of Conservatives here.

Some innovation is market-driven. However, the attitude that all innovation is market-driven, with the inescapable corollary being that not much innovation is ideas-driven, is untenable.

Basic science is the foundation of all significant innovation, and market drive has rarely led to major innovations. Markets do spur innovations of a secondary, derivative or incremental type but never fundamental and real innovation such as:


Computers originated in the minds of von Neumann, Turing2 and others. When the first practical computers became available, it was concluded that they would have no real market, except possibly for 50-100 units' worldwide which would perhaps be sought by some crazy


Many nations acknowledge the tremendous potential of biotechnology. Its basis is the research of Walter Gilbert (Nobel prize for chemistry, 1980) which made recombinant DNA technology possible. Neither a chemist nor a biologist, he was trained as a theoretical physicist working on quantum relativity under Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize for Physics, 1979) at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in the early 1950s. He made his key discovery while studying growing bacteria out of intellectual curiosity.


A most momentous advance, from the point of view of material progress, was undoubtedly the appreciation of the interrelationship of electricity and magnetism by Michael Faraday. At that time electricity was regarded as relatively useless by Faraday's enlightened comtemporaries" such as Charles Burney.

British Prime Minister Gladstone is said to have queried Faraday about the practical worth of this amusing phenomenon called electricity. Without a minute's hesitation, Faraday retorted: "One day, sir, you may tax it" ! Faraday's concept was further developed and quantified by Maxwell. It has been noted that "thus, from a single theoretical calculation done by an obscure professor (Maxwell) at the Cavendish Laboratory ... flowed the marvels of radio, television and the modern communications systems on the one hand as well as the medical facility to see through a human body with X-rays".

It is no paradox to say that in our most theoretical moods we may be nearest to our most practical applications - A.N. Whitehead.


Nothing illustrates the validity of Whitehead's observation better than Einstein's E = me'. This equation is the basis of nuclear fission, but more importantly, nuclear fusion. For purists of soft energy paths it is gratifying to note that this equation also explains the continued existence of solar radiation.


The achievement of manned flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright was a triumph of human imagination. At that time the Wright brothers were advised to abandon the idea of flying because the airplane, even if it worked, "was unmarketable ... flight by able ... flight machines is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible"8

Deep-Sea Exploration

It should be of particular interest to chemists to learn that modern deep-sea exploration became possible only after the fundamental work of Joel Hildebrand on the solubility of gases in liquids. Before his work, divers would die of the bends during the decompression phase owing to the rapid explosion of nitrogen from their blood streams as the pressure to which they had been subjected decreased. The replacement of nitrogen with helium in the breathing apparatus of divers made undersea diving possible.


When Bardeen and coworkers discovered the transistor at Bell Labs, they were working at the forefront of solid state physics. That is not to say that they were not hoping or aiming for some useful application of their work. The driving force was their imagination, their curiosity, their thirst to understand and manipulate the new material (Ge) at hand.

The same is also true of the laser. What market drive led to its invention and the resulting technology? None! It was the intellectual obsession of C. H. Townes and others, that created the laser.


Penicillin? What market survey led to it? When was a major innovation in medicine the result of market forces? If the innovation involves market forces as the paramount drive, why has a cure for baldness not been discovered yet? Superconductivity The latest example that comes to mind is the discovery of new superconductors based on ceramic materials. Since no previous theory, data, speculation or work could have provided the basis for writing a targeted proposal on this problem, this work would have never been funded on the basis of criteria of planned, relevant and targeted research. It is to the credit of IBM Laboratory in Switzerland that the discoverers of superconductivity in ceramic materials had the intellectual freedom to carry out curiosity-oriented basic research guided by their intuition and imagination. The same laboratory swept the Nobel Prizes in physics in two consecutive years. Not surprisingly, IBM is also the company which has prospered enormously, based on this kind of research.

While some inventions may indeed be market-driven, many more (and of a much greater scope) are curiosity-driven. It is not necessary to debate the relative merits of pure or applied research because curiosity-driven applied research can have an equally dramatic effect in advancing technology. it has been said as a criticism of basic research, that the "steam engine did more for thermodynamics than thermodynamics for steam engines"9 True, but the invention of the steam-engine was curiosity-driven; there was no market for it at the time.

Before you get the wrong impression of scientific research, I want to emphasize that most of us are not doing path-breaking research in our day-to-day work. These examples are the acme of the scientific achievements of our civilization. In real life, things are not as heady - day-to-day research is indeed much less dramatic.

Why Can't We Be Like Japan

The opinion that Canada is doing 'too much basic research and not developing enough technology', is often repeated. For problems such as nuclear fusion, photolysis, photoelectrolysis, the major topics of basic research in the next few decades, the Canadian presence is frighteningly insignificant. Or first fusion reaction of the Tokamak type (not counting the toy' reactor in Saskatchewan) has now been built at IREQ whereas a scientifically underdeveloped country such as Libya already had the foresight to set up (with Russian help) a Tokamak device in Tripoli before 198310. This device has no military applications.

It is well known that the percent GNP spent on R&D in Canada is the lowest among all industrialized nations and we lag behind very considerably in the Nobel-class research, when compared to Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Holland. Is one still convinced that Canada does too much basic research? Canada does not do enough basic research and does even less in advancing technology.

The widespread impression among businessmen and politicians that basic research is not necessary for advancing technology and that Japan has become a technological giant without basic research has no foundation. In point of fact, there can be no high technology without first-rate science. Let us consider solar energy. Canadian government officials and businessmen are busy "getting results", "creating technology and jobs" by installing roof-top solar collectors and water heaters, with relatively little basic research. They think they are doing like Japan', 'creating technology' without wasting' tax dollars on 'theoretical research'. A Nobel physicist who is also a leading world authority on the development of technology, especially those crucial to the Third World, has assessed the Japanese approach:

.. efficient photovoltaics do not depend on the engineers' tinkering with solid state materials; the solid-state problem is one of solid state physics. And it is this problem of basic science which the Japanese solid-state physicists have set themselves to solve systematically, before their counterparts in the USA or Europe. The Japanese will win this prize, not only because they are the more meticulous technologists, but also because they are the systematic physicists, with scientific facilities which, in many cases, are superior to what their rivals possess".

The same sentiment is also echoed by knowledgeable people in the field of economics and technology. According to the London Economist:

If solar energy is to provide the solution to the world's fuel crisis, that solution will not emerge from lowtechnology roof-top radiators - (which) rely on nineteenth century (science). A breakthrough (will) come from applying quantum physics, biochemistry or other sciences of the 20th century. Today's technology-based industries all depend on new science 12. To comprehend to connection between basic research and technology, it is necessary to understand their respective functions. In terms of Bacon's analysis, basic research increases our understanding of nature, whereas technology increases our power over nature; however, the power comes from the understanding'3.

There are some isolated bold voices in Canada who have tried to illustrate the vital dependence of technology on basic science. The most prominent is John Polanyi, FCIC, who has argued admirably that:

There is little question that modern technology advances across ground cleared and made passable by the systematic explorations of basic science. Gerhard Herzberg, HFCIC, Canada's leading proponent of fundamental research, has said repeatedly:

Scientists should be given the freedom to work on what they think is important, not what some politician thinks is important.

What Comes From Strategic Planning A dangerous popular myth is that a good strategic plan and sound management and reporting procedures can aid, if not guarantee, innovation. Such myths originate from business school graduates and those who have absorbed the philosophy that a good manager with professional management tools and professional planning can create the proper environment to stimulate innovative research. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Research on this subject shows that true innovation springs from a research environment where the management is loose, invisible or non-existent. For example, Intel's new buildings in California, were designed with many small conference rooms for spontaneous discussions and brainstorming sessions. Most real innovation results from 'bootlegging' as the General Electric R&D Centre in the States refers to under-financed projects not approved by the management. IBM purposely allows for wild ducks, dreamers, heretics, gadflies, mavericks and geniuses because experience has shown that "most of the big new business breakthroughs ... have come from small bands of zealots operating outside the mainstream"17. Indeed, a long-time observer noted that "no major IBM product introduction in the last quarter century has come from the formal system".

If most innovation within a company goes on in spite of management, and not because of it, what is the role of management in research? It seems that, apart from routine caretaking and housekeeping activities, the principal role of management in research is 'retrospective sense making':'s prime task is to select after the fact, from among experiments naturally going on in the organization. Those that succeed and are in accord with the management's purposes are labeled after the fact retrospective sense making') as harbingers of the new strategic direction. The losers are victims of trying to learn from 'impoverished shallow surroundings'.

In this context, there is no evidence that professional management and planning encourage innovation. In fact, the indications are in the other direction. For example, Japan has no business schools'9. Most research managers rise from the ranks of productive and innovative scientists and engineers. These are research leaders, rather than professional managers. They concentrate more on creative people and their preoccupations and provide technical leadership by example of excellence and achievement. Also, Japan is the only industrialized country where companies have significant technical expertise on their boards, usually one third of their directors.

It is instructive to examine the opinions of the directors of some of the most successful research laboratories, institutes and projects of immense technological complexity. Ronald L. Graham, former director of the Mathematics Center of the AT & Bell Laboratories, sums up the reasons for Bell Labs' pre-eminent position in research and innovation:

Our basic philosophy is to get the best people we can and, in some sense, stay out of their way 21.

Perhaps the greatest research manager of all time was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the legendary scientific director of the Manhattan Project. When the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, just outside Trieste, Italy was established, Oppenheimer remarked to Abdus Salam, the new director of the centre:

The day that a director of a research centre like this one stops being a scientist, he's useless. . . . Any fool can administer. People forget that they were made heads of centres because they were doing good science. So they lose their competence, they become manipulators of men just to keep themselves in power.

In attempting to revive a paralyzed R&D organization, or, to promote creativity and innovation within a new R&D division or an institute, recourse is often taken to formal structures believed to ensure this intellectual productivity.

A popular system currently practiced in some new R&D laboratories in Canada and elsewhere is the matrix structure. Here, project leaders with no line (ie., function) authority, are temporarily assigned personnel from various sections and divisions, to complete a project or a contract. They are responsible for the technical direction of this project. Although this system looks plausible on paper, in practice it tends to be hopelessly complicated and ultimately unworkable", the completion of paper work (became) an end in itself maintenance of the product planning and program review paper flow became as crucial as accomplishing the line responsibility assigned to each group . . " ". . . it virtually always ceases to be innovative" or ". . . it regularly degenerates into anarchy and rapidly becomes bureaucratic and noncreative" ". . . (The system) breeds staffers who gain and retain substantial power by ensuring that everything stays complex and unclear (ie., the staff becomes the umpire at the matrix crossover points, where, say, product and function clash)".

What is the alternative? The goal should be project-oriented teams and discipline-(chemistry, physics, mathematics) oriented nuclei of excellence, that allow for a natural but not forced or managed!) shifting of personnel from one area to another. This movement allows technical personnel to gravitate toward tasks for which they have the greatest competence and enthusiasm, thus using their maximum potential. Also, such an organization should be flexible enough to allow for frequent informal changes to accommodate changing needs and circumstances without causing major periodic upheavals that simply replace one unworkable formal management structure with another. And finally, there should be a minimum of hierarchy and paperwork. In terms of a thermodynamic metaphor, the system should function with a minimum of entropy; formal structures, such as the matrix system, result in maximum entropy.

In conclusion, too-much management is the anti-thesis of meaningful work in science.

It is important to emphasize that although the Canadian political and social climate is not conducive to the enterprise of science, there is no need to despair. One must always cultivate an attitude of looking at the bright side of things. With a positive and sunny outlook, one can always find something to cheer about.


The cartoons were prepared by Jan Svoboda and J. Novak inspired by themes appearing in various science magazines and, especially, by S. Harris.


1 R.A. Blais, "The case for a major increase in industrial research in Canada", presented in the Symposium on Private Sector Investment in Research (Corporate Higher Education Forum, Toronto) Dec, 6, 1989.

2 A.K. Vijh, Canadian Chemical News, 37 #4), April 1985, p. 12.

3 T.J. Peters and R.H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence, Warner Books (1984), p.31. 4 Abdus Salam, Ideas and Realities, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore (1984), p.278.

5 Abdus Salam, op. cit. p.275.

6 Abdus Salam, op. cit. p.276.

7 Norman Ahlers, Phys. Bull., 35, (Oct. 1984) p.424.

8 Andrew Cohen, The Financial Post, Toronto, (Oct. 20, 1984) p.12.

9 Derek de Solla Price, as quoted by Rustum Roy, IEEE Spectrum, 21 (Oct. 1984) p.8.

10 Abdus Salam, op. cit. p.277.

11 Abdus Salam op. cit. .281.

12 The London Economist, Sept. 29, 1980 as cited by Abdus Salam, op. cit. p.246.

13 Sir Francis Bacon as cited by Sir Peter Medawar, Pluto's Republic, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1983), pp.34-35.

14 John Polanyi, Science Forum, April 1972, p.27.

15 G. Herzberg, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Jan. 30, 1985.

16 T.J. Peters and R.H. Waterman Jr., op.cit. p.204-225.

17 Op. cit., p.115.

18 Op. cit., p.108.

19 Op. cit., p.5.

20 Chemistry in Britain, Jan. 1985, p.7.

21 Jeremy Bernstein, Three Degrees Above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age, Scribners, New York (1983); see also, Business Week, Oct. 8, 1984, p.19.

22 J. Robert Oppenheimer as cited by Abdus Salam, op. cit., p.211.

23 T.J. Peters and R.H. Waterman, Jr., op.cit., p.49.

24 Op. cit., p.308.
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Author:Vijh, Ashok K.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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