Technology transfer: remedial reading.

Thanksgiving provided me time for family (never enough!), but it also gave opportunity for some remedial reading[1] bearing on the process by which scientific and technical advance are harvested for societal benefit. There’s much food for thought in these two books; wish I’d read them earlier. The first, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, by the economic historian Joel Mokyr, dates back a quarter of a century. It was published by Oxford University Press in 1990.The second, Congress’ s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), by Peter D. Blair, is more current (Palmgrave/Macmillan 2013).

Some background: you might recognize technology transfer by one or more of its aliases: applied R&D, technology valorization, the transition from research to operations (or, more simply, as R2O), and so on.

The Wikipedia entry for technology transfer starts off this way: “Technology transfer, also called transfer of technology (TOT), is the process of transferring skills, knowledge, technologies, methods of manufacturing, samples of manufacturing and facilities among governments or universities and other institutions to ensure that scientific and technological developments are accessible to a wider range of users who can then further develop and exploit the technology into new products, processes, applications, materials or services. It is closely related to (and may arguably be considered a subset of) knowledge transfer. Horizontal transfer is the movement of technologies from one area to another. At present[when?] transfer of technology (TOT) is primarily horizontal. Vertical transfer occurs when technologies are moved from applied research centers to research and development departments.

Technology brokers are people who discovered how to bridge the emergent worlds and apply scientific concepts or processes to new situations or circumstances.”

This scrap of Wikipedia text nicely describes the activity and the players, but doesn’t capture its true significance for humanity as a whole. Continually adding to the store of human understanding, and harnessing that new knowledge to meet growing human needs more efficiently and cheaply, while at the same time reducing onerous labor, is not “nice-to-have.” It underpins our economic growth. This constant innovation is the means by which we postpone the Malthusian gloom-and-doom scenario[2]. It is fundamental to our continued existence on this planet.

Joel Mokyr’s book (worth study in its entirety – and many thanks to the colleague who brought this book to my attention) hints at these existential stakes. He speaks of innovation as the means by which societies “get a free lunch.” He takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through world history, showing how innovation has ebbed and flowed from place to place and from time to time. His richly referenced work makes it clear that continuing innovation can’t be taken for granted. A people’s culture and values (religion, interest in learning from others, high regard for mechanical ingenuity as well as academic accomplishment, propensity for risk-taking, willingness to assume individual responsibility, emphasis on public education, protection of free speech and much, much more) play a major role in shaping the pace and nature of progress. Mr. Mokyr illustrates by comparing the rate of innovation in (1) the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome with that of the Middle Ages, (2) China vs. Europe, and (3) England vs. the rest of Europe at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps most chillingly, he makes repeated references to what he calls Cardwell’s Law (see, for example, any of the links here): “no nation has been (technologically) creative for more than an historically short period.” That ought to ring ominous for any nation comprising no more than 4% of the world’s population, which nevertheless wants to remain “the indispensable nation” for the 21st century, after already laying claim to that title for more than 100 years.

Which brings us to Peter Blair’s book. Let’s suppose a country wants to beat the odds – wants to develop and sustain an innovative culture, with all the attendant benefits to its national and personal wealth, national security, and its place in the world. In that instance, it’s not enough to see technology advance and application as priceless. Individuals, corporations, universities, and government at federal, state, and local levels must exert discipline and rigor in its pursuit. The United States had just such a mindset following World War II. Looking at the role played by technology in winning the War – including but not limited to the atomic bomb, radar, and penicillin – the country decided it couldn’t depend upon luck to provide such innovation again. It would make a policy of fostering scientific understanding, technological advance, and the application of that science to national aspirations and goals. The United States established the National Science Foundation and took other measures to increase the level and rigor of investment in R&D. In the 1970’s Congress took the policy a step further. It established the Office of Technology Assessment to anticipate the positive impacts and unintended consequences of science and technology and systematically guide where and how the Nation placed its bets. The road was found to be rocky and the political support proved ephemeral. But that doesn’t mean the United States can afford to stop trying. We don’t have unlimited resources; funding for science and technology has to be prioritized at the same time it is nurtured.

Mr. Blair does an extraordinary job of documenting all this. He provides a crisp, highly readable account of OTA’s history (including its de-funding in 1995 by a single vote in the Congress). Equally important, given that the stakes in technological advance and application are so critically important that the United States can’t afford to “wing it,” hoping to be lucky, Mr. Blair lays out several alternatives for Congress going forward. These include: expanding the purview of the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, once again re-funding and standing up OTA itself (the enabling legislation is still in place), and/or making more aggressive use of the National Research Council. Mr. Blair knows whereof he speaks. From 1992 to 1996, he served first as OTA’s energy research program manager and later as Assistant Director of OTA and director of its Division of Industry, Commerce, and International Security. Presently, he is executive director of the NAS/NRC Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences.

To review: (1) tech transfer (aka R2O) is pivotal to mankind’s prospects, and (2) most effectively meets society’s needs when governments get the public policy framework right. The executive branch and the Congress each play a pivotal role. The sheer numbers of executive-branch employees – hundreds of thousands – leads to establishing and functioning of lots of pockets of energy on R2O. But America looks equally to Congress for the needed leadership. To meet these expectations, Congress could use some form of ongoing in-house analytical capability at its end. That’s a little harder to achieve in a total employee base numbering only 20,000.

But R2O isn’t a spectator sport. If you’re a reader of this blog, chances are good you’re an R2O player. More about that in a follow-on post.


[1] Seven billion people are writing a lot of books while our backs are turned.

[2]Note the emphasis on “postpone.” Sustainable development is an oxymoron, as discussed in earlier LOTRW posts, and in the book Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, available from the AMS or from Amazon.

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