[ C H R O N I C L E ]
Today innovation is largely seen as the result of scientific discoveries made at public laboratories (like the CNRS in France), universities or major companies. Numerous examples over the course of history strengthen this perception: the discovery of x-rays, leading to radiography; laser, a pure product of quantum mechanics, etc. This conception of the relationship between research and innovation resembles the linear and hierarchical model of innovation inherited in the 1950s from the Austrian Joseph Schumpeter. This nonconformist economist, defending the idea that economic growth is a discontinuous phenomenon, made innovation the driver of the economic dynamic and presented research as the starting point for the innovation process. This model originated the first French policies supporting science and technology, and the rise in research in the early 1980s. It is still evident today, in the European Union’s “Lisbon Strategy”, to invest 3% of the Community’s GDP in research and development. This model has drawn criticism however. The first bears on how it attributes research a key role in bringing about innovation. Many innovations do not actually originate from science. The invention of the microscope, it is known, preceded development of scientific knowledge in the field of optics; it was advances in polishing techniques that enabled Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to create the microscope in the 17th century. This is all the truer if we look at innovations which are not products. What could be said of social welfare, a major innovation of the 20th century? Did it originate from scientific research? Definitely not. Similarly, marketing innovations, whether they concern packaging (the family bag of rice becoming individual portions) or the availability of products (taking a “drive” to pick up shopping in your car), have no link with scientific research.
The second criticism concerns the relationship proposed by the linear and hierarchical model of innovation. While research may lead to some innovations, sometimes it generates an innovation that advances or even creates a science. For example, the rise in thermodynamics was based on questions raised by James Watt when he was developing the steam engine in the 18th century. Blaise Pascal’s understanding of atmospheric pressure was in response to the problems encountered by 17th century Florence fountain builders. The relationship between research and innovation cannot therefore be seen as going in a single direction, and even less as automatic. We need to free ourselves from the linear and hierarchical model of innovation, especially as it tends to convey research as a tool, as “servant” to innovation.
Furthermore, for many years in France, there has been a deplorable gap between efforts made for research and development, and achievements in innovation (1). Could we not imagine that this discrepancy results precisely from the relationship between research and innovation being reduced to simply application? And also from oversight - perhaps basic research helps to develop knowledge that opens up the realm of possible innovations? I submit that, to eliminate this gap, we need first to think ambitiously about research again and secondly, to accept being innovative about how we think about innovation.
(1) Jean-Luc Beylat et Pierre Tambourin, L’Innovation, un enjeu majeur pour la France, La Documentation française, 2013.
Doctor in Production Economics
Joëlle is a university lecturer at INSA Lyon, where she teaches innovation. She is scientific head of the Gaston Berger Institute’s “Ingenious Engineers Chair” program, funded by Saint-Gobain.