This is the path of innovation27 October, 2014 / Articles
The economic uncertainty that continues to plague countries around the globe has contributed to an increased focus on innovation and the commercialization of research – and rightly so. Innovation drives prosperity. Unfortunately, this focus can lead to the questioning of the value of basic foundational research. That debate presents a false choice, and it’s only by understanding why, that universities’ contributions to the world will be fully realized.
In fact, there is no choice to be made between basic research, which is driven by curiosity, and applied research, which is driven by need. Foundational research is how applied scientific discoveries get started, and universities cannot encourage innovation without fostering excellent basic research.
Consider what happened after a Japanese researcher named Osamu Shimomura got curious about a jellyfish species and discovered the protein that makes it glow in colour. Years later, American biologist Martin Chalfie realized that this glowing protein could help map the cellular structures of living organisms. Another scientist, Roger Tsien, later discovered how to make fluorescent molecules with technical applications, including mapping the human brain.
That work, which developed over several decades from basic research to fundamental and then advanced applications, won the three men a joint Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008. It illustrates that the path from basic research to innovation is rarely straight – it builds on successes and failures along the way.
To say that foundational research is indispensable for scientific breakthroughs is fully compatible with promoting innovation. Both in Canada and in Israel, universities are helping students and faculty better understand needs in both the public and private sectors, and supporting their efforts to translate basic knowledge into applied breakthroughs.
Some of the most exciting steps involve training students to become the next generation of innovators. At Dalhousie University in Halifax, for instance, the “Starting Lean” program encourages entrepreneurial thinking in undergraduates – and now some of its graduates are joining the Canada-wide “Next 36” program, aimed at turning top students into future business leaders and innovators.