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Shape Shifting

The Changing Distinctions between Science and Technology, and Invention and Innovation

Benjamin Franklin, Alexandar Graham Bell, Tim Berners-Lee SOURCE: AP Photo/Mike Groll and Benjamin Franklin's discovery of basic principles of electricity made possible Alexander Graham Bells invention of the telephone a century later. A century after that, the infrastructure built around Bell's invention, along with the Pentagon's creation of the Internet, made it possible for Tim Berners-Lee to create the World Wide Web.

Here at Science Progress we write often about science and technology, invention and innovation. These two valuable traditional distinctions—between science and technology and invention and innovation—are rapidly evolving. Some of the same forces are at work in both cases. As we consider the public policy choices ahead in rebuilding our nation’s industrial economy, it’s important to appreciate how the foundations of technological innovation are changing.

First of all, science and technology are in the process of converging. Technology has been around since at least the beginning of agriculture, arguably in tools and weapons used by hunter-gatherers, but science in its modern form is a latecomer. One difference between science-based and non-science-based technology is that scientific theories often have surprising implications that even their pioneers don’t anticipate.

A classic example: Albert Einstein had to be persuaded by fellow physicist Leo Szilard that the atomic bomb was a practical possibility, partly in light of the Einstein’s own special theory of relativity, so that Einstein would lend his prestige to a letter alerting President Franklin D. Roosevelt of this potential.

Secondly, science-based technology development is remarkably recent, accelerating only toward the end of the 19th century, with specific, crafted applications of ideas drawn from the emerging explanatory and demonstrable theories, especially in biology. Of course, it is still possible to engage in technical manipulations of the world without paying attention to any underlying theory, so science and technology will never be identical. But there is every reason to believe that the convergence will go on indefinitely, as science becomes an increasingly critical input to the process of technology innovation.

For a time the idea of starting with a scientific theory as a way to solve a practical problem was so novel that the term “applied science” was coined. But so much technology is now science-based, as in the development of new microprocessors, that applied science—particularly in the public policy arena where policymakers want to speed up commercialization of new technologies—is becoming virtually synonymous with technology.

To appreciate the traditional relationship between technology and invention, take the example of Thomas Edison. He was both a nonscience based technologist and an inventor. The incandescent light bulb was built on a diverse array of gradually improved materials and owed its origins only very indirectly to electrical theory (an early theorist of which was another great American inventor, Benjamin Franklin). Alexander Graham Bell was another to whom the term technologist/inventor applies. Both Edison and Bell were brilliant craftsmen who addressed a problem, but neither was an innovator.

Like science and technology, the relationship between invention and innovation is also evolving, but differently. While science becomes an increasingly critical component of innovation, the process of innovation in turn is becoming increasingly dependent on a wider array of activities than just invention.

Innovation, in the words of the historian Harold Evans, involves more than inventing a new technology, it involves “a universal application of the solution by whatever means…. Invention without innovation is a pastime.” Universal application is a matter of dissemination, sometimes called “diffusion,” or moving an ingenious solution out into the world. In that sense, the telephone as an innovation is owed to someone who is far less than a household name: Theodore Vail, the founder of AT&T. His vision and organizational genius turned Alexander Graham Bell’s technology into national telephone service through the merger of Western Union and the Bell Company.

As the technologies that power our lives become increasingly complex, each new useful innovation stands on the shoulders of an ever growing pyramid of previous inventions. The Pentagon’s invention of the Internet in the 1960s created the opportunities for innovators such as Tim Berners-Lee to develop the World Wide Web. Reminiscent of AT&T’s Theodore Vail, who married two entities to produce his communications system, Berners-Lee joined hypertext to the Internet to produce the Web.

What’s more, the diffusion of inexpensive Internet access into the majority of American homes and businesses, coupled with advanced telecommunications and satellite infrastructure, has made possible yet another innovation, the iPhone application, which can now be instantly disseminated through AT&T’s 3G network to handheld users across the globe.

None of these society-changing technological innovations could have come into being without the work of a diverse array of entrepreneurs and engineers in sectors from computing to telecommunications to infrastructure to marketing—all of whom figured out how to commercialize these inventions by making them useful, profitable, and affordable.

With little notice, these innovations in computing and information technology now shape the science of laboratory biology, as genetic sequences can now be emailed to labs around the world and chromosomes reconstructed from the biochemical data. In this sense, as well, ease and immediacy of scientific communication are giving the scientific community leverage as a new invisible college and also constituting it as a global force, a world polity of instantly shareable knowledge and innovation. The fact that innovations are shaping the way our society and economy function, and even shifting into the development of previously unrelated areas of science and technology are evidence that we have surpassed a factor-driven economy, and exist now in a truly innovation-driven one.

The important public policy lesson is that in the 21st century technological innovation is not a zero-sum game. Progress in one field of technology or science often yields unpredictable benefits for others. While once an inventor might have relied on her own ingenuity and locked herself in her garage to keep her intellectual property, now the prize will go to those able to collaborate in local, regional, or even global alliances of researchers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. Innovation begins with invention, but success or failure of new technologies in shaping society and improving human lives ultimately hinges on whether there is a profitable business plan to be built around the production, sale, and use of that technology.

As the inherently cooperative and interconnected nature of science, technology, invention, and innovation becomes evermore manifest, public policy needs to reflect the emerging reality that these forces will continue to shape our economy and our society in profound ways we simply cannot predict. We need to ensure that our economy is supportive of the full spectrum of innovation activities beyond invention—from research and development, to demonstration, and on to commercialization. We also need a STEM education system that ensures our students are prepared to participate in these activities, and better work force training and higher educational opportunities to enable our students and workers to quickly shift into the manufacturing and services jobs that comprise the 21st century innovation economy.

These are difficult policies to create and institute. But if public policy recognizes the inherent value of science as not just the pursuit of obscure truths, but as an irreplaceable input to the technology innovation process that sustains our modern economy then policymakers can begin the effort better positioned and better informed about the possible outcomes.

Jonathan D. Moreno is Editor-In-Chief, and Sean Pool is Managing Editor of Science Progress.

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