Yesterday’s New York Times ran an interesting story on “How Scientific Gains Abroad Pay Off in the U.S.” The gist of the piece is how scientific advances in other countries could help US competitiveness. The story uses the example of Seagate Technology is using research findings developed in other countries to commercialize products.
The story illuminates the discussion going on in the technology policy community about the role of basic research. The standard argument is that the US needs to be the predominate nation in science. But some have been questioning that argument. They raise the point that the US should better utilize research done abroad.
As the NY Times piece puts it:
Americans have long profited from low-cost manufactured goods, especially from Asia. The cost of those material “inputs” is now rising. But because of growing numbers of scientists in China, India and other lower-wage countries, “the cost of producing a new scientific discovery is dropping around the world,” says Christopher T. Hill, a professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University.
American innovators — with their world-class strengths in product design, marketing and finance — may have a historic opportunity to convert the scientific know-how from abroad into market gains and profits. Mr. Hill views the transition to “the postscientific society” as an unrecognized bonus for American creators of new products and services.
Mr. Hill’s insight, which he first described in a National Academy of Sciences journal article last fall, runs counter to the notion that the United States fails to educate enough of its own scientists and that “shortages” of them hamper American competitiveness.
The opposite may actually be true. By tapping relatively low-cost scientists around the world, American innovators may actually strengthen their market positions.
I support the idea that the US should do a better job in utilizing foreign research. But, ironically, that does not mean that the US can back off of its commitment to increased R&D. In order to utilize that foreign research, the US must have top notch researchers here at home to interpret and modify the findings. The NY Times story points this out in the case of Seagate:
Last October, the Nobel Prize for physics, for instance, was shared by French and German scientists for their basic discovery of what is known as the “giant magnetoresistance” effect, which enables much more digital data to be stored on a disk drive. The breakthrough, by Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, had essentially no commercial impact in Germany or France. But by using open scientific literature and attending conferences, Seagate found ways to capitalize on the breakthrough, which had been financed by European governments.
Commercializing science isn’t easy, which is the main reason that rising scientists from India, China and other countries can’t readily achieve business success. In the case of the magneto effect, Seagate engineers ended up using different materials — at different temperatures — than the Nobel winners.
By the way, Chris’s paper “The Post-Scientific Society” is more detailed than simply an argument for using global research:
In the post-scientific society, the creation of wealth and jobs based on innovation and new ideas will tend to draw less on the natural sciences and engineering and more on the organizational and social sciences, on the arts, on new business processes, and on meeting consumer needs based on niche production of specialized products and services in which interesting design and appeal to individual tastes matter more than low cost or radical new technologies.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.