Research and innovation: we often use these words as synonyms. They are superficially similar, though subtlety different. It is possible to conduct research that leads to no innovation, and one can innovate without conducting research. However, research and innovation are deeply interrelated, intellectually, philosophically and economically.
I recently spoke to a group of chief innovation officers from Fortune 500 companies about the processes and mechanisms for research and the ways research ideas do and do not get transferred into successful (i.e., profitable) products. After my presentation, one of the attendees approached me over coffee and offered an observation that I found both pithy and astute. He opined that research turns money into ideas, but innovation turns ideas into money! When successful, this cycle is a powerful amplifier of both research and innovation.
The Big ROI
As a lifelong researcher (at least my professional life), I periodically remind myself that the return on investment for basic research is sometimes long, but the payoff can be dramatic. To illustrate this, several years ago, the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the U.S. National Academies produced a report with a figure that has come to be known as the "tire tracks" diagram in computing research policy circles. (The figure at right is a recent version.) It shows the lag, typically a decade or more, from when basic computing research ideas first appeared until they created the billion dollar industries that define modern computing.
With this backdrop, it important to understand the diverse reasons governments and companies fund research. One of them is quite obviously to discover new things, to restock the cache of ideas and insights that feeds innovation. Equally importantly, we conduct research to educate and maintain a pool of talent that is skilled in critical thinking and armed with newly created knowledge. In a competitive world, researchers are also an early warning system and rapid response team that can move with alacrity when the novel and unexpected happens elsewhere.
Feeding the Pipeline
I would like to think that those of us in computing understand pipelining and speculation. Research feeds the innovation pipeline, and speculation explores multiple ideas and approaches. Not all of them are successful, and many are discarded. (Those of you who are computer architecture types can see where this analogy is going.) Sometimes the unexpected happens – a new and novel discovery – that necessitates redirecting our inquiry and development.
These interrupts are part of what make research and innovation such an exciting and sometimes challenging endeavor. What matters most, though, is keeping the pipeline full.