Friday, February 03, 2012

Communication is the glue in innovation.

Dollar Sign in Space - Illustration
I just read a 2011 journal article that begins, “Commercialization is not a concept normally associated with science.”

Did you just spit coffee? Because, I know, how could anyone think such a thing?

Please do not tell the pharmaceutical industry, the electronics industry, or the  oncomouse distributors that science is not about selling things. Do not tell farmers who depend on their extension office’s latest science-based reports to improve their corn.

And especially do not tell my son who thinks most of his toys are all about science and engineering: Lego, Candy Chemistry, National Geographic Kids, Spy Gear, and those creepy bugs in plastic that go under his microscope.

I would say science is most definitely for sale.

Innovation is simply the commercialization of R&D.

Except that Andrew Price wrote on last week about a study that used wild bee conservation research to determine whether research papers are helping solve problems. Their algorithm may help determine which scientific work is driving innovation. So it might be that researchers at universities (those who typically give scientific papers at conferences) often separate themselves from commercialization (given that looming tenure thing, and all).

Still,  profit-driven research and development firms combine science/engineering and commercialization all the time. The list of recalled drugs/toys/equipment is too long to deny that the lines between independent research and commercialized science cross too often in a rush to market. Science is anything but separate from commercialization.

Without commercialization, companies would not need to employ researchers. Students would not want to learn what to do with paper pulp. And no one at all would care about wind except to figure out how to keep it from blowing things down.

Commercialization and science have a symbiotic relationship; they need each other to move forward.

Even the Science Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education efforts fail to consider how education leads to commercialization. Let's teach kids to be scientists or engineers so they can be better innovators, but the effort fails to connect the dots, using the one thing both commercialization and scientific discovery must have to succeed: excellent communication skills.

If you can’t communicate what you’ve made, you certainly can’t sell it, or find a research and development company to take interest, or a venture capitalist to provide $100 million in manufacturing funding.

But Emily Brownson at the University of Wisconsin-Stout gets it. She designed a juice bottle for a class project and then went out and talked about it. If she hadn't told someone else about what she made, do you know what the fancy bottle she calls Frogo would be? Homework.

Have you ever seen a flight attendant spill something on her clothes? All she has to do is flick at it with a napkin and it’s gone. No stain. No wet spot. Nothing. And notice that flight attendants are never wrinkled, although many practically live out of a suitcase. That fabric didn’t come from the weaver of cotton. It was developed in a laboratory.

Innovation = Communication(Science + Commercialization)

Seriously, science that isn't communicated is just a bunch of discarded data, and commercialization is all about messages to people. Neither moves forward without communication. Communication is the common factor in innovation. But if you make something or hope to sell what you’ve discovered in the lab, you must be able to tell the right people about it in a clear way.

There’s an entire field of academics who study this type of communication: technical & scientific communication scholars and an entire profession that specializes in technical & scientific communication. This is my academic affiliation.

And that journal article I read? The one that says commercialization and science are mostly separate pursuits?


From the field of tech comm.

What it tells me? 

We have a long way to go to make people see that communication is the link between science and commercialization.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by user DonkeyHotey.]

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