We need more than the market to make innovation count

By Mark Mann

Managing Editor, RE$EARCH MONEY

In the innovation community, we often talk about how government and industry can better facilitate the commercialization of research. Whether tacitly or explicitly, we tend to evaluate innovations based on how well they serve the economy.

But not every innovation finds its most natural and ideal expression as a product. Some are born of research that is directly supported by risk-friendly funding programs, such as the New Frontiers in Research Fund, and then further developed by policy-makers and put into action by lawmakers, non-profits, and NGOs.

The world is beset by wicked challenges that demand innovative solutions, and not all of them are market-based, as Tim Draimin argues in his Opinion Leader column for this issue. It takes special skills and circumstances to navigate the path from fundamental research to a successful venture (see our Q&A with North founder Stephen Lake); likewise, world-changing social innovations require the same care and expertise.

I was speaking recently with Dr. Nicholas B. Rajkovich, a professor at the University at Buffalo who researches renewable energy and adaptation to climate change. We were talking about the phenomenon of recurring climate assessments, starting with intergovernmental panels at the highest level, then national assessments, and then on down to regional and municipal-level assessments. Of course, these reports offer real value, but they can become an end in themselves.

“The challenge is how do you move that data into action,” Rajkovich told me. “Scientists at universities have not received the training to really to do that.” He believes that we need to start funding action-oriented research that focuses on creating detailed strategies and taking concrete steps along clear timelines, and training people to do that kind of research.

The problems we face as a society are profound and manifold. If we want help from innovation, we can’t rely solely on commercialization. We need to design research that leads to direct action.