[a great societal] “challenge, a development problem, is the widening gap between advancing scientific knowledge and technology and society’s ability to capture and use them.” – The International Council for Science.
A year ago a friend, Ryan Baker, earned his doctorate at the George Washington University, defending a thesis entitled Logistics and Military Power: Tooth, Tail, and Territory in Conventional Military Conflict. I’m just now partway through the read.
Why bring this up? Let’s start with a quote from (now-Dr.) Baker’s abstract:
There is a broad consensus that logistics is a major determinant of the course and outcome of military conflicts, but very little work has rigorously explored when, how, or why it matters. This dissertation is an effort to close this gap. To do so, I develop a theory connecting the logistical capacity of military forces to a standard measure of military power: the ability to control territory in large-scale, conventional ground warfare. My central claim is that to seize and hold ground successfully depends on more than whether a military force has enough combat power (or “tooth”) to overcome its enemy on the battlefield, but also on whether that force has enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold its objectives—in other words, that logistical capacity is a necessary condition for territorial control.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that similar statements could be made about innovation: the process of scientific and technological advance, and the extension of such advance to sustained changes in the way society does business. If we want a brighter future, we can’t just focus on basic research. Consider this reformulation:
There is a broad consensus that logistics [or infrastructure] is a major determinant of the course and outcome of [innovation], but very little work has rigorously explored when, how, or why it matters. This dissertation is an effort to close this gap. To do so, I develop a theory connecting the logistical capacity of [would-be innovators] to a standard measure of [innovation]: the ability to [change society’s ways of doing business]. My central claim is that to [institute and sustain societal and technological change] successfully depends on more than whether [would-be innovators] ha[ve] enough [intellect, or genius, or cleverness] (or “tooth”) to [make such change], but also on whether [innovators have] enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold [these] objectives—in other words, that logistical capacity [or infrastructure] is a necessary condition for [sustaining change].
A bit ham-fisted, quick-and-dirty; readers could obviously improve on this with further wordsmithing. But you get the idea.
Back to Ryan’s thesis. His central claim is:
…that to seize and hold ground successfully depends on more than whether a military force has enough combat power (or “tooth”) to overcome its enemy on the battlefield, but also on whether that force has enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold its objectives—in other words, that logistical capacity is a necessary condition for territorial control. To show how logistical capacity and territorial control are linked together, I use the established logic of large-scale conventional ground combat and explain why military forces have to have at least some tail to control territory. I then show that the amount of tail that a force needs is determined primarily by three main variables: (1) how far away the objective is from where the force began, (2) how fast the tooth consumes resources, and (3) how fast the tooth moves relative to the tail. I conclude that a force cannot reach its territorial objectives without enough logistical capacity to meet the resupply requirements of its tooth over the distances implied by those objectives, and (for attackers) at the rate of advance necessary to get there.
Again, by analogy, researchers “at the cutting edge of science,” (the “tooth” metaphor fits comfortably here, doesn’t it?) need logistical support – laboratories, instruments, computing hardware and software, and above all, workforce and funding – not just to maintain their advance, but to scale it, and make research progress available to the larger population (that is, hold “territory” gained). What’s more, researchers, technologists, innovators need these essentials to ever greater degree (1) the more removed their envisioned world of future possibilities is from the constrained, resource-limited real world of the present, (2) the more rapid the pace of innovation, and (3) the wider the technological gap between where the would-be change agents are at any given moment and the host society’s ways-of-business-as-usual.
This past week brought this reality close to home. Three mini-symposia on weather and climate forecasting gave subject matter experts opportunity to provide input to NOAA and NOAA’s Science Advisory Board on research needs with respect to observations and data assimilation; forecasting, and information delivery. Speaker after speaker detailed myriad opportunities in these three areas to improve weather and climate forecasts and make them more accessible and valuable to a range of publics. But the progress and benefits were contingent. They’ll be available in the near term only if society augments investment in observing platforms and instrumentation; the computer hardware and code to digest more fully both existing and new sources of data; and in analyzing the ways people capture and use information. In other words, the nation needs to build a more-capable logistical tail for innovation.
It doesn’t stop there. Speakers noted that every aspect of this work will require harnessing machine learning/AI. To a person, they also noted with dismay the shortage of professionals at all levels equipped with the technical background and skills to work on the particulars; the interpersonal skills to work in teams and collaborate on the broader tasks; and leadership skills to manage the overall work and interface with users. Funding concerns were never far behind.
And remember – weather and climate change represent just one very small corner of the world’s innovation agenda. Minds are concentrating on similar challenges facing innovation with respect to:
- Applying recombinant-RNA methods not just to covid vaccinations but across a broad spectrum of human ills;
- human missions to Mars – 160 times more distant than the moon;
- harnessing the elusive potential of plasma fusion for generating clean electrical power;
- the development of quantum computing
- the development of AI/machine learning and its broad application across the entirety of the national agenda;
- genetically-modified foods, and even the prospect of synthesized foods
- desalination of water
- (and countless other goals)
All this calls to mind the 2006 ICSU quote at the beginning of this post. The broad, and indeed ever-widening territory of innovation, and the widening gap between scientific advance and societal benefit should raise a red flag for scientists, for national and business leaders, and for the world as a whole.
The aim shouldn’t be to reduce the gap by slowing the pace of innovation. A happier set of outcomes are tantalizingly within reach. Political and business leaders could instead accelerate measures to reduce the gap and shorten the logistical tail by moving the societal end. At least three opportunities come to mind:
- modernize American infrastructure
- invest more in K-12 (and higher) public education, especially STEM education
- broaden the inclusion, equity, and justice underpinning these efforts.
A closing note: We owe a great deal to the military for the development and application of science for human benefit here in the United States. Early U.S. scientific and engineering efforts included the Survey of the Coast, which has been tied to the military ever since its origins, and West Point, which played a significant role in the engineering of roads, bridges rail, and harbors; the forerunners of today’s critical infrastructure. Military expeditions – the Lewis-and-Clark and Zebulon Pike explorations of the Louisiana Purchase, Charles Wilkes’ exploration and survey of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands – contributed much to early US natural science.
Worth particular note here, the military has long paid attention to the logistical tail for its in-house R&D well before notions like application readiness levels began showing up explicitly in civilian research agencies. Early on, DoD established within its appropriations budget structure seven [sic] categories identified by a budget activity code (numbers 6.1-6.8) and a description. (Budget activity code 6.1 is for basic research; 6.2 is for applied research; 6.3 is for advanced technology development; 6.4 is for advanced component development and prototypes; 6.5 is for systems development and demonstration; 6.6 is for RDT&E management support; 6.7 is for operational system development; and 6.8 is for software and digital technology pilot programs.)
Think of these as vertebrae in innovation’s logistical tail.
From a 2006 ICSU report on capacity building I referenced in a 2013 LOTRW post. The ICSU link you’ll find there apparently is no longer available online – a reminder of the fragility/perishability of web-based material and its limitations as an archival medium.