Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for May 2010

Technology and Research: Alternating Leadership

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One big change in recent years, independent of the economic downturn in the West, is that the societal problems have ratcheted up very significantly. It is clear enough that the economic downturn in the West has been severely aggravated by these societal problems.

Such societal problems include those relating to climate, transport, energy, and so on.

So, for example, China plans to invest more than USD 3 trillion by 2020 on expanding its railway networks.

Or in order to exploit nine wind parks off the UK coast, the UK is envisaging investing 110 billion euro.

We know only too well the financial engineering issues that must be addressed in the West. For example, in 2006, the private household debt in the US was at the level of over USD 12 billion.

What we have is a very wide range of technologies, relating to environment, transport, finance, and many other areas, that are urgently and critically in need of innovation. In other words, new research is urgently needed.

A leading contrary example from recent times where it was otherwise, where we had research-led technology, was in the origin of the information infrastructure of our global society. I am referring to the web. In the years leading up to 1993, the http protocol was developed by Tim Berners-Lee and his physicist colleagues as a document exchange system. In early 1992, undergraduate student Marc Andreessen wrote and released the XMosaic browswer, a graphical user interface. The mix allowed the spark to move from high energy physics and university environment to the world of business. It was the spark that happened in early 1993 that set off the Dot Com boom years, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, Finland’s telecoms-based recovery from 1994, and much more.

What is different now is that that we are again in a period of technology-led research, where technology is putting demands on us as researchers, as engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Our work processes are as important as our outputs. Very clearly too “science” is not just the restricted domains that have been demarcated in the English language under this term, but have to include all areas of the human and social sciences too. Technology – social requirements – is now in the driving seat relative to science, broadly understood.

Just one example of the implications of this: take batteries, that are fundamental in the electric cars now being developed. Small companies are pursuing lines of enquiry, large corporations are ambitiously staking out technologies and markets, policy makers are trying to get their heads around the complex deployment scenarios, others are modelling – mathematical, financial, physical, and then there are university labs and many researchers in different disciplines. My point is that there is no essential difference at all between university lab and company research and deployment. Nor also is there any real difference between blue skies thinking and practical, applied demonstrator or beyond. There is no pipeline here. There is just the technology needs that are immediately and directly motivating and driving (in every sense!) the research.

For technology and for research, opportunity beckons.

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Written by Fionn Murtagh

2010/05/11 at 23:15