Science is team work, and so is innovation

What is “science” exactly? What is “innovation” in technical fields? Here’s my take, from the intro to my recent book.

The traditional purpose of the fundamental sciences is the acquisition of new knowledge pertaining to observed phenomena, in an attempt to describe “what is.” In parallel to the discovery of new knowledge through scientific inquiry, philosophers, or theoreticians, derive ideas of “what could be.” Via formalisms, they construct structures of thought to validate these ideas and derive iteratively new ideas from them.

We can focus for a moment on the human dynamics around these activities. On the one hand, the intellectual pleasure that internally motivates the human scientists is mostly to be found in the acquisition of knowledge and ideas. For natural scientists, the focus is on accuracy relative to the observed phenomena, whereas for philosophers the focus is on consistency. On the other hand, the external motivation for all fields of science, which materially sustains their activities, is the need of humans for either discovery or material benefits to their physical existence. From this position, the outcome of scientific inquiry and philosophical thought, namely knowledge and ideas, is not directly what human audiences are interested in. The “missing link” between scientific insight and its practical benefits is innovation, an engineering process in two steps.

The first step of innovation is foundational engineering: the creative, nearly artistic process where humans find a new way to assemble parts into a more complex artifact, following the inspiration and foreshadowing of their past study of knowledge and ideas, and guided by human-centered concerns. Foundational engineering, as an activity, consumes refined matter from the physical world and produces new more complex things, usually tools and machines, whose function and behavior are intricate, emergent composition of their parts. The novelty factor is key: the outcome must have characteristics yet unseen to qualify as foundational; merely reproducing the object would just qualify as manufacturing. The characteristic human factor in this foundational step is creativity, which corresponds to the serendipitously successful, mostly irrationally motivated selection of ideas, knowledge and material components in a way that only reveals itself as useful, and thus can only be justified, a posteriori.

The other step is applicative engineering, where humans assemble artifacts previously engineerd into complex systems that satisfy the needs of fellow humans. In contrast to foundational engineering, the characteristic human factor here is meticulousness in the realization and scrupulousness in recognizing and following an audience’s expectations–if not fabricating them on the spot.

The entire system of activities around science is driven by a demand for applications: the need of mankind to improve its condition creates demand for man-made systems that solve its problems, which in turn creates demand for new sorts of devices and artifacts to construct these systems, which in turn creates demand for basic materials as input, on the one hand, and intellectual diversity and background in the form of knowledge and ideas. We illustrate this general view in the figure below. The role of education, in turn, is to act as a glue, ensuring that the output of the various activities are duly and faithfully communicated to the interested parties.


To conclude, different humans who partake in these activities have different preferences. We do not expect any one person to participate in and be successful at all steps to improving the condition of mankind. The corollary is that for all processes to be successful, humans must acknowledge their separate interests and coordinate their work towards the common goals.

Tomorrow, we will see how “computer science” fits into this big picture.