Science and innovation follow diverging paths before rejoining
Brent Carey, a graduate student at Rice University in Texas, has discovered a material that behaves in an unusual way, at least for a non-living material. Made of carbon nanotubes and a rubbery polymer, the composite material does not show any sign of the damaging fatigue that would normally come with repeated exposure to stress; instead, it grows stiffer and stiffer. Why? Nobody knows yet.
That’s the point where science and innovation start to follow diverging paths.
On the one hand, the discovery is going to be exploited in a whole raft of applications. In transport equipment only, the material could find its way in all kinds of vehicles from high-performance mountain bikes and ocean-race boats, to mainstream automobiles and even aircrafts. While these innovations gradually take place, science, on the other hand, is going to focus on understanding why the material behaves in this unusual way, how much performance benefits it can yield, and what limitations it will ultimately face.
It is likely that in some applications such as mountain bikes or ocean-race boats, the new material will get to market before science has made any significant progress in understanding its unusual behaviour. The drive to beat competitors to market and to be seen as innovative by customers will justify taking the risk of applying the discovery in an empirical way. Trial-and-error will drive the first batch of innovations: manufacturers will use the material in small series to learn by doing, while limiting the risk of failure, then will grow bolder and apply it more broadly.
In the meantime, science will progress in its endeavour to explain the unusual behaviour. As a matter of fact, early trial-and-error applications will provide further experimental data for science to deepen its understanding of the phenomenon. Some critical milestones will have to be reached along this road before innovation can take place in more sensitive applications such as aircrafts. Whatever the envisaged performance benefits, I, for one, would not fancy sitting on an aircraft made of the new material before we understand how it really works!
That’s the point where the path of science has got to rejoin the path of innovation and support it with fundamental understanding. Those in charge of creating an innovation culture have to allow science and innovation follow diverging paths, but ensure that, at times, these paths cross again.