Success in applied research and innovation

Dr. Steve Larter

“Try and be brilliant, but at least be useful.”

By Steve Larter, PhD, FRS
CMC Scientific Director

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 the 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 (Erhlich 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, academic papers and theses, while part of that solution, are no longer an adequate end point of all our work.

So what do 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? There is no doubt we increase the stock of useful knowledge and that alone is success. 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.

The Royal Society report “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. Scientific and engineering knowledge is collective, 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 (eg. the Manhattan project) or long (eg. the disk drive). 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 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 Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg who received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on giant magnetoresistance. 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 monetizable on any political time frame, 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 program 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 Grey Cup, the RCMP and poutine, HQP (skilled graduates and researchers) is a truly 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 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, HPQ, paper production and eminence are 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 and new scientific instrumentation and methodologies. They are expected to 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, cultures and reward systems are based around quite different objectives and traditions to those needed now in our grand century of challenge.

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 the 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 CMC what might my outputs be, in addition to my fine papers and theses?

Well, spinout companies, patents and employees are a reasonable expectation for some projects. From all projects, even the basic research ones, a focus on solutions is where we have to be and in 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 miners’ lamps. 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.

What else for success from our CMC projects? Well — suggestions?


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