A Linear Model in the Wild

I came across a well developed instance of the Linear Model of innovation in a new RFP from USAID.  The diagram in the RFP wasn’t the best quality, so it’s not the crispest of images, but have a look anyway:

The model provides a narrative in which basic research leads to field implementation, guided along the way by policy, which monitors and validates progress at each step of the way.   One starts with strategic planning, moves to applied research that develops tools and approaches, and from there jumps to “catalytic activity to facilitate adoption of product”, and completes with a “country-level program” results in “regular use”.

It’s so thoroughly rationalized it’s hard to object.  Research to use, following a planned and monitored–a managed pathway, evaluated, validated, measured.  I think this actually happens at times, but I don’t think it is even close to being a general depiction of how innovation comes about.  Nor do I think that funding research based on policy requirements ends up following this pathway.

It’s difficult to describe.  Perhaps there’s a clear statement of it out there somewhere.  I will do my best here to get at the problem.   Let’s start with a radical premise.  Let’s say, research has structure.  What “research” refers to is lots of things, from futzing to exploration to personal improvement to experimentation.  All that.  Let’s also say that this narrative of linear motion is only workable after the fact.  Life does not follow it.  Research does not produce field implementations.  Research does not even have an arrow.  Radical.  Let’s say the arrows are wishful thinking.  They are elements of policy that values planning, control, authority, and getting things right.  The RFP asks people to present their work as if it accepted the arrows.  In a way, it’s the King Lear problem:  those who get the grant awards will be the ones who play along and show who loves this model the best.

The primary limitation of this model is that in dealing with innovation, only a tiny bit of anything new can be anticipated by policy makers.    The world is too large even with what is known in it, let alone what is not known.  If the RFP is only about taking stuff already known and importing it to country Y, well that’s called trade and it’s been done for centuries without all the scientific mumbo-jumbo to justify it.  But if the RFP is about innovation arising from discovery, then there’s a huge problem.

How does one discover what one wants?  How does one snap one’s fingers at the sight of a sardine can and end up in a room multiple floors up in a broken down castle in Sardinia?  It’s absurd, of course, because making those jumps involves huge uncontrolled leaps.  It’s unlikely that one leaps straight for the desired unknown, or even gets close.  Research is like that–in all but the most constrained situations, research is out grabbing for who knows what, and comes back with the unexpected.  Only rarely is the unexpected the object of an applied search.  Mostly it’s something else.

We might say, the world is too rich, or we are generally too inexperienced in it, to come up with what we need out of the void, when we happen to need it.  There is something about exploring, about fiddling through hundreds of variations, of switching across categories of interest, of going out for walks and letting random things cross one’s path, even sardine tins, that makes for getting one ready to recognize or develop something new.   We might say, even, that our primary innovative experiences in the world are embedded in engagement with things, with practice, with performance.

Before we are engaged with things, it’s hard to say even what is worth doing, let alone submitting to “basic research”.   I propose that if there are arrows, they don’t generally point from basic research to new use, but rather from current use and from inept use and from apparently unrelated stuff to possible new things, and some arrows from some of those new things point to basic research which is more an end stage of things than it is the crucial first step.

In the history of warfarin, the basic research that involved the science of how coumarin worked happened decades after the molecule and its variations had been identified.  Yes, in a way, identifying a molecule is basic research, but things started with cattle dying from moldy sweet clover hay, moved via a farmer driving through a blizzard to an agricultural chemistry lab, from there to developing a blood thinner (didn’t solve the cattle dying problem at all!), to a rat poison (very successful), to a suicide attempt using rat poison (failed), to a new therapeutic (the rat poison renamed), to basic science that showed how it all worked.   Start to finish about 40 years, with as much basic research at the end as at the beginning.

If folks want to improve research outcomes, they have to give up the linear model.  The direction is not generally linear, work does not go from basic to applied to use.  That is merely an artifact of a latter, simplifying (distorting/recasting) narrative.   Folks have to give up the idea that the starting points for innovation are research proposals.  Doing so is somewhat liberating, allowing folks to spend more time in the world looking for conditions in which the seeds for change might be sprouting.  Folks have to give up the idea that innovation is planned, is autocratic, is authoritative, is reducible to a nice schema.

Generally, innovation is messy, opportunistic, multi-directional, often back-flowing, drawing on luck, persistence, and imagination as much or more than systematic, pre-established processes.

The view from this perspective is that research and innovation are not linked in the way university administrators are happy to give out to the public.  It’s not that research fuels innovation, but that innovation fuels research.  Universities are great consumers of innovation, but it is not clear at all that they are often the starting points for innovation.  And when they are at the starting point, it is also not at all clear they are at their best when they are alone there, or are at their best when government grants based on the “merit” of proposals written to spec are the ones that get funded.

If one upsets the Linear Model, there’s a vulnerability.  The world is a big place again, and there’s no one with a whole lot of authority to pronounce on what’s the right thing to do.   That’s pretty cool.  It’s bewildering in a refreshing kind of way.

What would a university IP policy look like that actually took this up, and aimed to encourage bewilderment, put people in the middle of things to sort out, and used basic research as the capstone activity after innovation rather than mistaking basic research as a generator of innovation, and then demanding arrows in a figure to make the mistake authoritative, established, how it must be?  One might start by throwing out the idea that technology transfer has anything to do with commercialization, or with moving the results of research to industry.   That would be a good start.





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