Thursday, April 19, 2012

Industry doesn't need applied research, nor does it need pure research

A recent conference conducted by the New Zealand Association of Scientists has drawn attention to the argument about whether funding should be provided for pure research, or for applied research. This is a common, ongoing dichotomy in many debates over research, particularly that funded from the public purse.

The reality, however, is that this debate is based on the erroneous assumption that industry benefits only from applied research, and that research directed at assisting industry must be applied.

This is an oversimplification, based on the definitions of research developed by Vannevar Bush in the post-World War II era of economic expansion.

Donald Stokes in his 1997 book Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation argues that there is a far stronger link between research of the more basic nature and innovation in industry than many appreciate.  In fact, the dominant form of research is use-inspired, regardless of whether it is at the discovery or the application part of the cycle.

Yet, industry (and a large body of policy-makers) is lead to believe that it needs applied research. Thus the attention has turned to wants, rather than needs.

What industry needs is research that is appropriate to solve the problem at hand, or exploit the opportunity recognised. (And this is best driven by better problem definition, not the meaningless classification of science).

Very often the real needs of industry cannot be met from available knowledge, which means that the research it needs must be of a more discovery nature. As Stokes eloquently puts it when he uses Louis Pasteur as his example, the more involved you become in the application of scientific knowledge in the market, the more you identify even more fundamental questions to be answered. These fundamental questions need to be answered to enable full exploitation in the market. 

Others explain the concept better than me, such as this contribution from Washington State University.   

The Lessons of Pasteur's Example can be summed up:

         Pasteur was a chemist & microbiologist
         Driven to solve the problems of industry - fermentation
         Breakthroughs include vaccines (rabies & anthrax), germ theory & pasteurisation (of course)
         While ‘use inspired’ he answered fundamental science questions, because he needed the answers in order to answer industry questions
         Suggests that industry focused research includes both applied and pure/fundamental
         Focus should be on outcomes, not type of research

What is the utility of all of this? 

Countless hours are wasted on trying to determine whether the public should be supporting applied research or basic research. Far less time is spent on identifying the priorities to be researched, or the questions and challenges to be answered.  More time spent on the latter will enable the scarce public resources to be better targeted at activities that make a difference.

Once the priorities are identified it is easier to determine how much effort is needed in discovery and how much in application – that choice depends on what we know about the field, how much information and knowledge has already been discovered, and what remain the unanswered questions.

Deciding what to do on the basis of whether it is pure or applied research does little more than distort the research agenda. Research is research, and the nature of the research depends on how much knowledge we have in relation to the problem or the opportunity we are examining.

Now, a debate about national priorities - that's an entirely different beast! As is how much is needed to be invested!  How do we best define the problems, or characterise the opportunities?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Leaders Learn

One question often asked is: are leaders born or is leadership taught?

Leaders learn!

Burt Nanus gives a few ideas about how leadership skills can be learned.

1.   Seek leadership responsibility early and often.
2.   Find a mentor or role model.
3.   Develop farsightedness.  Create a sense of vision.
4.   Master the skills of interdependence.  They're more important than the skills of competition.
5.   Become a world citizen, learning the languages and cultures of others.
6.   Develop personal character, integrity, and trust.
7.   Seek varied job assignments.
8.   Think like a researcher, develop a sense of curiosity and creativity.
9.   Design a leadership job carefully, knowing their goals.
10.Have fun at what you do.

Source:  Nanus B (1990) The Leaders Edge (US: Contemporary Books)

Monday, April 09, 2012

Six characteristics of a Good Leader

Leadership is a diverse topic, and there is an enormous literature that surrounds it.  Social media abounds with “insights”, to the extent that I have recently begun reflecting on what I have learnt about leading over the last 30 years in the work force. Not much seems to be new!!

 One dominant theme in the social media is an attempt to describe good leadership.  The following is an older contribution from Schmertz and Novak on the topic that seems to cover much of what is advocated in more contemporary contributions.

A good leader
  • is always willing to do the dirty work.  He'll sweep out the store if that's what's required to make a project succeed.  If everyone on the team has to make a sacrifice, he'll set an example for others to follow.
  • isn't afraid to hire people who are smarter or more creative than himself.  He knows that if he goes to the usual mediocre sources, he's going to end up with the usual mediocre results.  A real leader can harness the energy of creative people in a way that will enhance the entire enterprise.  Since most people "per se" are mediocre, the true leader can be recognised because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.
  • is enthusiastic during tough times.  Leaders who constantly complain about a bad situation can rarely motivate the troops and help them to overcome adversity.  In a crisis, optimism and confidence are even more important than experience and intelligence.
  • has vision.  In our experience there are two kinds of leader - the "lets-not" and the "why-not".  When times are tough, the lets-not prefer to retreat, to stay with the familiar, to avoid taking risks.  The why-nots, on the other hand, are open to fresh ideas and bold possibilities.  If the old answers don't work, they're willing to experiment with new and unconventional solutions.
  • is tough - a quality that has less to do with personality than with character.  It's not that the tough leader is abrasive, or uncaring, or insensitive.  It's simply that he's willing and able to make the difficult and unpopular decisions - and live with their consequences.
  • holds a set of philosophical principles that guide him when it comes to specific issues.  Rather than making decisions on an ad hoc basis, he has formed some conclusions about the basic objectives of the organisation and about how those objectives should be reached.  By the same token, he knows that the long-term health and survival of the organisation must take precedence always over short-term gains.

See:  Schmertz H and Novak W (1986)  Goodbye to the low profile.  The art of creative confrontation.  London: Mercury Books