Basic Research

Published on May 6th, 2015 | by David Bott

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Is commitment more important than direction?

As part of the election campaign that seems to have been going on forever, there has been another round of discussion about the need to invest in science. It prompted me to go back and re-watch Martyn Poliakoff’s thoughts on the link between science and technology. This, in turn, reminded me about my personal history with Martyn and, to an extent, how it exemplifies something I have come to strongly believe about the relationship between science and technology.

When I first started my career in industry, I was given a task to identify areas of science where my employers could see potential products or services that fitted within their portfolio of business interests. Given that I worked for BP and it was trying to work out how far it could spread its interests, this gave me a pretty broad palette, but I still had to make links between the technology and things people could envisage selling. After talking to lots of people both inside and outside BP, I recommended we focus on conducting polymers and started a programme to identify markets that could benefit from their unique properties and look for ways around the characteristics that were currently inhibiting their uptake. This involved working with a team that included chemists, materials scientists, physicists and device engineers both inside and outside the organisation. It was intellectually challenging and we published papers as well as filing patents. All along though, we had a vision of the types of products and services we were aiming to produce, because that was how industrial research was done.

At the same time within BP, the Venture Research Unit was seeking out what someone once characterised as “scientific rebels”. They were supporting scientists and engineers who wanted to work in an area that many others regarded as pointless or irrelevant or worse. Every year, they held a conference where they mixed these disruptive elements with those of us within the corporate research organisation. It was at one of these meetings that I first met Martyn. He was looking at the behaviour of supercritical carbon dioxide. I don’t think he was focused on any particular application. It was just that the behaviour was novel and interesting and he wanted to understand it.

As it turns out both areas have blossomed into commercial technologies and have found application in new products and services. Over the last 30 or so years, the promise of conducting polymers has started to be realised, but the application of supercritical fluids in a variety of processes has possibly exceeded the commercial aspirations of those who originally worked in the field.

For me, this simple contrast between 2 areas of chemistry I know moderately well encapsulates the quandary about the best way to extract value from science. It has been my experience that all forms of new knowledge have value – it is just the timing that varies. The obvious value of using easily processible polymers as semiconductors has taken a lot longer to be exploited because the established industries who could have used them didn’t always want to change. They knew how to operate with their existing materials and processes and the development pathways of the “sitting tenants” has meant that the newer materials were chasing a moving target. In fact, the main applications that these materials are finding are mostly those where the properties of the new materials are different from those of the existing materials and where new applications have been developed.

It is perhaps because I know less about the details in the uptake of supercritical fluids that I think I see an easier path towards exploitation. The science was developed without the weight of expectation that other areas have laboured under. No-one kept asking where the payback was coming from because it hadn’t been part of the “case” for the original work. As the novelty of the properties became apparent, people from different areas of commercial activity moved in to exploit them.

The observation I cannot escape making is that the development of the basic science in both cases was necessary but not sufficient for technological implementation, and that the applied focus of one did not mean it was exploited quicker. The important point in both cases is that those engaged in trying to understand the underlying science, although they were driven by very different drivers, were committed to understand how and why things behaved the way they did. The translation into commercial products was carried out with a different mind-set. The link between a specific set of properties and an application is not about science, it is about technology and business. Many who successfully translate science into business are not scientists. It is just that they recognise the link between the properties and the solution to a problem that they believe people will pay for. What technology based business are critically dependent on is new discoveries and insights into the way the world around us operates. Without that, the flow of new products and services will eventually dry up.

What is important is that scientists find out new things and that they pursue this goal with passion and rigour. To specifically set out to solve a problem does not guarantee that the problem gets solved, and can constrain the imagination of those who work on the problem. Introducing new ideas into established markets is often difficult – it can be easier to see why things don’t work rather than why they do. The translation of “basic” science is not a linear trajectory with predictable consequences. From what I have seen, successful products usually start with a need that people would pay to resolve, and involve someone in business with the imagination to envisage at least one way to address that need and the connections to find a potentially relevant piece of science or engineering. There is often a lot of interaction, clarification of the understanding on both sides of the discussion and, sometimes, successful development of a new product or service. Sadly though, sometimes it doesn’t work and someone gets unfairly labelled a failure for having tried. What we need is a better link between science and business, not to turn scientists into businessmen.

Or, to paraphrase another old friend from science who was commenting on the timelines of his own work, we need to look at the whole thing and think “this is the science that has made money, and this is the science that hasn’t made money – YET!”

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David Bott is Principal Fellow at WMG. After 26 years with BP, Courtaulds and ICI, spent in both their corporate centres and business units, David began a love affair with start-ups 10 years ago. He was diverted into spending 7 years setting up and directing the Technology Strategy Board (now rebranded as Innovate UK), the UK's innovation agency.

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