The many-splendored sources of innovation

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No compendium of great inventions would be complete without a nod to the personal computer. Naturally, those born after Blondie first warbled “Heart of Glass” will almost certainly rank the device as mankind’s No. 1 brainchild.

Clearly, the scientists and historians who contributed to The Atlantic’s Technology Issue (this month’s edition) are somewhat longer in the tooth than the average computer geek. For the cover story, “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel”, they relegated the near-ubiquitous machine to 16th place.

Meanwhile, the top spot went to. . .wait for it. . .the printing press, because, in the words of one judge, “the invention was the turning point at which knowledge began freely replicating and assumed a life of its own.”

In other words, Gutenberg’s invention (circa 1430) is, arguably, more significant in the history of innovation than a box of transistors and capacitors, because, without it, the pace of technological advancement would have remained stuck in first gear.

That’s oddly comforting to an ink-stained wretch such as myself, who was still writing magazine copy on a Royal portable typewriter as late as 1991.

But, The Atlantic’s exercise, and others like it (The Smithsonian magazine is just out with is “101 Objects That Made America”), is more interesting for what it says about how we perceive innovation than for its actual choices.

Indeed, writes lead contributor James Fallows, “One aspect of the results will be evident as soon as you start looking through them: the debatability of the choices and rankings once you move beyond the first few.”

He continues: “For instance, anesthesia, which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer. In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn’t exist? . . .I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction; I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn’t pay for novocaine.”

Here, in Canada, the policy debate about innovation and technology has drawn a line in the sand between researchers and scientists, on one side, and bureaucrats and politicians, on the other.

The thinking, becoming ever more prevalent, in government is that innovations must be “useful” or “relevant” and replete with everyday applications to justify public investment. The National Research Council (NRC),  the Government of Canada’s “premier research and technology organization (RTO)” puts it this way: “RTOs are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life.”

Its vision is “to be the most effective research and development organization in the world, stimulating sustainable domestic prosperity.” Its mandate is to work with “clients and partners” and “provide innovation support, strategic research, scientific and technical services to develop and deploy solutions to meet Canada’s current and future industrial and societal needs.”

The language signals a recent and deliberate shift in the NRC’s position in society – one that’s more closely aligned to the interests of industry than to those of academia. And that worries many in the research community.

“You can’t convert a government research agency into a contract research organization,” Peter Morand, former dean of science and engineering at the University of Ottawa and a past president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council told the Globe and Mail last May.

Added David Robinson of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in the same article: “It’s a very sad day for science in Canada. . .(The NRC) “was established to develop Canada’s basic research capacity and did perform admirably.”

Still, the root causes of innovation – especially of the technical varieties – are notoriously difficult to pin down. It is more often than not the case that hard science and applied research dance a stately minuet, from which emerge everything from nuclear fission and the telephone to the personal computer and the printing press.

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