SCIENCE IS AN ENTREPRENEURIAL PROCESS
By Dr Shieak Tzeng
Buckminster Fuller the American inventor and futurist observed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled only every century. By the end of WWII knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Recently IBM predicted that with the advent of the 'Internet of things' and Artificial Intelligence knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours.
This knowledge explosion is fantastic except in areas like medicine it currently takes 17 years for only 14% of new scientific discoveries to find their way to daily practice. Put another way, most innovations do not make it into practice, or if they do, it does so slowly.
There is no simple explanation for this because science is a non-linear process and it is difficult to track the impact that individual research outputs may or may not have on outcomes. But we do know about some systemic factors. One is that most scientists are content with publishing. The assumption is that by open sourcing scientific results, a scientist has done his job and that it is somebody else's job to pick up the baton and apply the knowledge.
Unfortunately, knowledge transfer is not like an organized relay where each runner knows his or her position in the lineup and is ready to run. Often when a scientist finishes his leg of the race (by publishing a paper), the baton is thrown into a crowd with no interest in translating the knowledge into products, services, or practices. Sometimes it is thrown into the wilderness with nobody around.
Luckily the tides are changing. Governments and science funders are recognizing and rewarding research that has an implementation plan. Increasingly scientists are required to demonstrate precisely how their research is going to produce tangible benefits to society. In some cases, they need an explicit commitment to meet these impact targets. As a society, we should celebrate these trends.
But what does this mean for a researcher?
It means that the days of a researcher focusing on publishing are coming to an end; that we are entering an age where researchers need to have a mission-driven strategy; that researchers are going to have to become more entrepreneurial and be ready to do what entrepreneurs do. That means raising funds, managing complex R&D programmes with a clear focus on outcomes and growth, sticking to timelines, taking appropriate risks, investing in people and amplify productivity, learning how to be leaders, engaging with marketing and science promotion, delivering policies, programs, patents and products. For some, it can even mean becoming an entrepreneur and starting a company.
And what does this mean for our Universities?
It means that our Universities need to create an enterprise culture, including amending degrees to include enterprise, growing entrepreneurial 'soft' skills, redefining and renaming TTOs, and reinventing IP policy that is investor friendly.
Many will object to this paradigm. But if you look at history, the entrepreneurial spirit has been a proven strategy for survival during difficult times in just about any walk of life. Science is no exception.