Alternative Models of R&D and Innovation

The relationship between science and technology is usually described by referring to a model that depicts innovation as a three-step, linear process. The three steps are basic research, applied research, and development. Vannevar Bush (1945), in his landmark treatise, Science - The Endless Frontier, used this linear model as the framework for explaining and, subsequently, justifying an expanded role for the Federal Government in supporting scientific research. The simplicity of this model makes it particularly appealing to - and popular among - policymakers.

Experts who have studied the innovation process, however, usually favor alternative, more complex explanations of the relationship between science and the commercialization of new technology, including the chain link model, (Kline and Rosenberg, 1986; OECD, 1992) which is an interactive model with feedback loops. As evidence of the inadequacies of the linear model, these experts cite real world examples that demonstrate that technological breakthroughs are just as likely to precede, as to stem from, basic research.

In a forthcoming book, Pasteur's Quadrant (in press), Donald Stokes describes a new model that holds great promise for further discussions of this issue. The starting point for his approach is the work of the great scientist Louis Pasteur. Stokes writes that:

The rise of microbiology in the late 19th century is a conspicuous example of how large a role considerations of use can play in the advance of basic science. Pasteur sought a fundamental understanding of the process of disease - and of the other microbiological processes he discovered. But he wanted this to deal with...anthrax in sheep and cattle, cholera in chickens, spoilage in milk and wine and vinegar, and rabies in animals and human beings.

Pasteur's work was both basic and applied at the same time. The experiments he conducted yielded both breakthroughs in scientific understanding and practical applications. Therefore, his work was at odds with the linear model.

Stokes cites numerous other major scientific achievements, including the work of Faraday and Kelvin, as being motivated by both fundamental understanding and potential use.

Stokes suggests replacing the linear model with one that captures the inherent overlap between basic and applied research. Stokes' model describes several different categories of research: pure basic research (the work is inspired by the quest for basic understanding but not by potential use); purely applied research (the work is motivated only by potential use); and strategic research (research that is inspired by both potential use and fundamental understanding).

Stokes' work is facilitating understanding of basic research as having potential value in terms of practical application beyond that gained from pure science. He writes, "We will be more likely to meet essential societal needs, including competitiveness in the global economy, if we creatively link the dual trajectories of basic science and technological innovation." Additionally, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development standard definitions now differentiate between two types of basic research: "pure basic research," and "oriented basic research." These new approaches help to convey the concept that basic research can be extremely useful, regardless of whether or not the potential use is known at the time the research is being conducted.