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Trusting innovators who break the rules

Imagination is more important than knowledge, says the National Science Foundation, which plans to support research where true innovators explore ideas that render things obsolete.

The 20th century was an unprecedented time of invention and technological progress. From mass electrification to the auto and the airplane and on into the computer revolution, the world has been transformed many times over.

However, according to Joseph Bordogna, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, researchers should act as if this is merely prologue to future scientific exploration.

"We are looking for people who are at the frontier," said Bordogna at 2001: A Tech Odyssey, a recent seminar presented by Wharton?s Emerging Technologies Management Research Program. "The National Science Foundation wants to identify research with overarching potential. As Lewis Thomas once said, ?Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what no one has thought,?" said Bordogna. "That is what we are looking for at NSF."

Too many times, he said, scientists and manufacturers alike get caught up in the latest technology, figuring that this is it for a while and that demand will not catch up for a long time.

Bordogna related the story of Danny Hillis, the former vice president of research and development at the Walt Disney Company, who went to a computer conference 20 years ago. Hillis was struck by the naivete of those at the conference who claimed that microprocessor production would be limited, never reaching even the million mark. "It?s not like you need one in every doorknob," Hillis remembered someone saying sarcastically. Of course, when Hillis returned to that same hotel for a conference recently, every doorknob was, indeed, equipped with microprocessors for plastic-key locking and unlocking.

The National Science Foundation, said Bordogna, has $4.5 billion a year to award in grants and a lot of it ends up being awarded over the transom. "Out there in the business world, research and development tends to be product-oriented. Everyone has to have strategic planning," he said.

"But the great majority of proposals that come to us come in unsolicited. It?s the only place where a citizen can get money for research after a fair review." The reason for this, he said, is that the NSF values innovation and far-forward thinking, rather than mere product development.

"Our motto is this: Where scientists, engineers and artists concur, that is the territory of imagination," he said. He brought up the confluence of thoughts by scientist Albert Einstein and artist Edward Hopper as examples of the way the NSF is currently thinking. Einstein, he noted, said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," while Hopper added, "No amount of skillful invention can replace imagination."

"While everyone seems to be looking for merely the next technology, we are hoping they search for something that renders something obsolete," Bordogna said. For example, the automobile made the livery stable obsolete, and few regret that now. Similarly, transistors made vacuum tubes obsolete and CDs killed needle-and-groove records. "The question is how you get on the positive side of this creative disruption," he said. "How do you create and anticipate different futures? How do you grab the chain before someone else does?

Cognitive research seems to some to be merely theoretical. But the NSF
feels that its most important mission is to train the work force of the
future. "First, you have to take stock of where you are," he said. "But it is not enough to know just about your own product line and how it will change. You have to take in a cacophony of variables."

Bordogna pointed out that researchers should look to some seemingly mundane industries to inspire themselves. Children?s toys, for instance, used to be simple. Now nearly every one has some kind of microprocessor in it, making each one more complex. Just a few years ago, you probably had to telephone a company to get in contact with someone quickly. Now everyone has an e-mail address and each one of them is more than likely connected with a URL for a Web site. Even at the National Science Foundation, all proposals are dealt with electronically.

That, however, creates its own set of challenges. "Now instead of Fed Ex trucks lining up at the door, we have computer systems that slow down or shut down," he added. "The nature of things is that the needs of society continue to change and we have to continue to expect that." Accordingly, the National Science Foundation is looking in five areas for innovative research, areas he admits can seem quite esoteric: nanoscales, terrascales, cognition, complexity and holoism.

Nanoscale research, said Bordogna, is getting us down to being able to manipulate molecules and even atoms. The NSF is looking for that "magical point" where this kind of research will be able to change the way things are collected and changed. "We?re looking for the innovation that will produce a molecular computer that will have the Library of Congress on something you could wear," he said. "We want the information of 1000 CDs on a wrist watch."

The flip side of nanoscale research is terrascale computing. He said he hopes the next level of research will bring about this scale--which is about three orders of magnitude beyond where we are today. "Right now, for instance, some protein synthesis takes 40 months in a laboratory," he said. "With terrascale computing, it could be done in a day--1000 times faster."

Cognitive research, he said, seems to some to be merely theoretical. But the NSF feels that its most important mission is to train the work force of the future. "If we don?t have these kinds of people, there is no way we can get the expertise to everyone else, and that is the ultimate goal," he said. Research on the science of how people learn and think is crucial.

Finally, he said, he is hoping for more research into complexity and holism, which he called two sides of the same coin. "Complexity stands on the edge of chaos," he said. "It is where new ideas nibble at the edge of the status quo. The vernacular for people who study complex things is ?out of the box,? but really, we are talking about imaginative people," he said.

Bordogna wants to see more research into areas where many disciplines meet--where either they are combined in a complex matter or massaged into a holistic continuum, in which the whole is better than its disparate parts. "We have found that holism works in communities, in sports, in other social matters, so we think it should work in technologies as well," he said.

But all this, he said, will require forward thinking, not just worrying about the market for a product, which often drives research and development.

And it will require research that goes beyond any particular standard. "Innovators break the rules," he said. "Trust them.

To read more articles like this one, visit Knowledge@Wharton.

All materials copyright © 2001 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.