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The ‘Pure’ Science Of Industry

There is a division in science – ‘pure’ science and ‘applied’ science – two sides which battle against one another for funding, compete for global visibility and fiercely race to scoop up the best talent. The same can be said for industry – only this time the division exists between ‘innovation’ and ‘business as usual’, and unlike the relationship between pure and applied science, the relationship isn’t always one of mutual respect.

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There’s a good understanding among scientists that efforts focused on both pure and applied are critical in shaping our future. Inventions such as the laser, GPS, sweetener, the MRI scanner, penicillin, Viagra, Teflon and electricity were results of curious experimentation, as opposed to targeted efforts to solve particular problems. With criticism sometimes surfacing when monetary backing is announced in, for example, particle physics, applied scientists will vouch for the need of their pure colleagues to stumble across unknown unknowns to continue moving the world forward.

At this years’ How To Academy conference, ‘How To Change the World, Professor Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute of Science, spoke about the need for curiosity-driven research, proclaiming: “It is the business of academic institutions to transform money into knowledge, and the business of industry to transform knowledge into money.” He put forward the case for scientific bodies to invest more in pure science, to better understand the need for people who are curious and passionate as opposed to knowledgeable, and the concept that you can’t guide innovation by money, but rather, ideas.

Zajfman’s talk – aimed at universities and research institutions – might well have been something you would hear at tech or marketing conferences such Cannes Lions, SXSW, Social Media Week and Web Summit. It’s generally considered in these circles that innovation needs to be invested in much more bullishly, and that those who are tasked with running that agenda are typically the sort of people who don’t fit the cookie cutter mould of legacy roles.

Just one week later at unBound, Brent Hoberman of Lastminute.com, Made.com and Founders Factory, spoke about the corporate need for “fewer, smarter, people, who have the ability to ignore HR and ROI”. He also commented on the Netflix tactic of paying people to leave the company, figuring that if certain employees are more focused on a healthy pay out versus having a job they can align themselves to ‘heart and soul’, then it’s likely worthwhile for a company to invest in replacing the workforce with people who really buy into their culture, goals and passion.

Hoberman and Zajfman clearly agree that it’s not short-term investment return that paves the way for successful innovation and long term profit, despite coming from the very separate fields of pure science and consumer retail. The difference though, is that this is one area in which the world of academia is far ahead than that of industry – almost all scientists respect the process of asking a question and not banking on a ‘sellable’ answer.

Of course, corporates do have shareholders and metrics and annual reports, so you could argue that the comparison to science is ill-fitting due to the vast differences in organisational structure. But science is not an easy place to make or manage money – academics are constantly pushing to up their funding through grant applications, are pressured to publish their findings regularly and in the highest quality journals, and are never far away from losing project backing due to the funding bodies being controlled by whatever sitting government is in power.

And yet, pure scientists are still backed. The quest for answers to questions which, on the surface, may seem futile and insignificant goes on. The scientific ecosystem champions their ‘innovation team’ of pure researchers and ensures the powers at be don’t lose sight of their importance.

Corporates need to invest in their own ‘pure’ employees. If companies are to stay ahead of the curve, continue to serve their constantly evolving consumer base, and avoid the infamous ‘Blockbuster effect’, passionate people with curious ideas must sometimes come before profit and ROI. Trying to incrementally improve existing services and products does not result in innovation.

As Zajfman quite poignantly points out: “No amount of R&D on the candle could have created electricity”.

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