Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Politics: Understanding Innovation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Who was the best engineer in the history of the world? Unless you are a railroader and thought of Casey Jones, likely you were dumbfounded, and perhaps came up with Leonardo Da Vinci or Thomas Edison after some thought. Engineers are not normally glorified in the United States culture the way sports figures, politicians, businessmen or even scientists are (bet you can think of a few of those), which is part of the argument made by Henry Petroski in new book, "The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems." More importantly, Petroski argues that engineering needs to be more valued because science alone won't solve our problems. The arguments that Petroski is making on his current book tour deserve some attention, and I will respond to some of the points he is making in subsequent posts. For today, I want to focus on his core point, that engineering needs more cultural and political emphasis in the United States.

Petroski claims to be driven to write his most recent book as a result of the Obama administration's emphasis on promoting science as a means to innovation. In his view, the government doesn't seem to understand the difference between science, famously described as "describing what exists" (in ever-increasing levels of insightful detail), and engineering, "the creation of things that have yet to exist." The process of innovation, almost by definition, necessarily involves engineering, the creation of something new. Scientists could come up new explanations as revolutionary as Copernican astronomy, nuclear physics, or the periodic table of elements, and it would have no significant impact on the economy unless an engineer created something with it.

Strictly speaking, of course, Petroski is correct. However, in theory, scientists could perform the innovative task of engineering and do the invention themselves, just as engineers often have to do scientific research in order to come up with an idea that works. As much as he tries to draw a bright line between the two professions, the best engineers I know are good scientists, and the best scientists I know occasionally dabble brilliantly in engineering.

Yet, from a cultural perspective, I think Petroski is right. There seems to be a belief in the United States, in particular in its business culture, that the scientific discovery is the key part of the whole process, and the engineering is just an inevitable afterthought. The Nobel Prizes are the only technology prizes most people have ever heard about, and they are awarded on the basis of scientific discoveries, describing how things work. Many engineers haven't even heard about the engineering prizes, for actually making things, that do exist.

Personally, as a trained engineer (furthermore, one who has always tried to emphasize product development and commercialization), I have run into this lack of understanding of engineering repeatedly in my career. Whenever a non-engineer is placed in charge of the day-to-day product development process, a company is lucky to ever get a product out the door. Scientists seem to think that once they demonstrate something a few times in feasibility that a perfect product will shortly be finished by engineers at minimal expense. The details of devices that use their discovery (in the case of medical diagnostics or consumer goods), or manufacturing processes to mass-produce their discovery (in the case of pharmaceuticals) are regarded as annoyances instead of the barriers that will determine a product's commercial success. On the other hand, when engineers run the show, the problems to overcome those barriers are enumerated, attacked, and generally overcome close to original budgets and time lines.

The real problem, as I'll explore further in a future post, is not scientists that don't understand engineering, as usually they are happy to hand off commercialization problems for engineers to figure out, but business people. They are the ones that not only don't seem to understand the difference between science and engineering, but don't want to spend any money on the commercialization process because they feel they've already spent too much money on scientific research. When they start cost-cutting in the development process and products fail to appear as scheduled, they blame the very engineers that in many cases told them there weren't enough resources to finish the job. Innovation, just like scientific discovery, doesn't come for free, but business people seem to think it's a place to save money.

Petroski is right that the Obama administration, while talking about innovation, has put funding mostly into basic research through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. To fund commercialization resulting from government-funded scientific research (the actual innovation), small companies will still need to turn to private sources, whether they be partner companies, venture capitalists, or potential customers--and that's especially hard to do in a recession. Yet, it's almost more the cultural factor than the funding that needs to be addressed--getting the MBA's of the world to understand that they will need to emphasize commercialization in their companies if they want to be innovative. Nobody in the Obama administration is even saying things along these lines, so Petroski feels he needs to stand up and talk about it.

Interestingly, Canada has recognized that it has a much larger innovation gap than the United States, and it has responded completely differently. Noting that its academic institutions and basic scientific research seem to stack up on such measures as patenting, the current government has decided to focus on commercialization in its economic initiatives. In other words, Canada sees that its scientists are doing their jobs, but their engineers don't seem to be able to turn the discoveries into innovations that make a difference in the marketplace. I haven't yet heard Petroski's take on the Canadian initiatives, but I suspect he would say that Canada is doing exactly what he feels the United States should do.

Of course, as an engineer in Canada who has tried to make a career out of commercialization, I sure haven't seen the emphasis make any difference in my job search so far.

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