Close Menu

Science: The Raw Fuel of Innovation

IIT College of Science Dean Russell Betts gave the lecture “Science: The Raw Fuel of Innovation” in fall 2013, as part of celebrations for the launch of the new college. How does the transformation from the understanding of fundamental science to application and innovation take place? His discussion ranges widely, from Carnot and Pasteur to Hermsdorf—whose patented machine put the crinkle in hairpins—to Damadian, Lauterbur, and Mansfield and the discoveries that led to today’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). He also talks about the conditions that support innovation, looking at European models versus the United States, Vannevar Bush’s “Science, The Endless Frontier,” Bell Labs and other past great industry labs, needs today, and IIT’s planned Innovation Center.

The following essay was adapted from the lecture "Science: The Raw Fuel of Innovation" given by Dean Russell Betts in fall 2013.

The assertion that science is the raw fuel of innovation seems self-evident. All one has to do is look around at the multitude of devices and applications available today that have their roots in what was, only a relatively short time ago, curiosity-driven enquiry into basic science. What is not so obvious is how this transformation from the understanding of fundamental science to application and innovation takes place. 

A naïve view might be that basic science research continually adds to a pool of knowledge and understanding that can be drawn on to support the process of innovation which proceeds in a more-or-less linear fashion from knowledge to technology to application to the market place. This view can be immediately questioned by simply looking at the definition of the word “innovation” which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “...a new method, idea, product....” Thus, innovation cannot just be thought of as the above linear process connecting basic knowledge to the marketplace, but rather something that can happen at all levels and at all stages of the process. The progress from science to innovation may then be thought of as a complex trajectory in a space of basic knowledge, applied knowledge and experience, coupled with input from law, commerce and societal factors.

Examination of a few examples illustrates this point. In a humorous vein, one of the great innovations of the twentieth century was the introduction of the “crinkle” into hairpins, which prevented the pins from slipping out of the newly fashionable short women’s haircuts of the 1920s. This innovation, made using a device patented by Walter Hermsdorf in 1922, clearly depended on mechanical knowledge as well as the characteristics of the available materials. However, the tracing of these ingredients to basic science would be a stretch at best—rather, they had emerged from the trial and error process that largely characterized innovations of the nineteenth century and earlier. 

Carnot and Pasteur

Indeed, often the process of innovation actually preceded the basic science on which it depends. For example, Sadi Carnot, the great French scientist, came upon his understanding of the basic science underpinning all heat engines—leading to the foundation of thermodynamics—through study of the then-extant steam engines. Indeed, having found his way from the application to the basic science, he then found that the theoretical limit of the efficiency of such heat engines had already been approached through the experience of the designers—in ignorance of the fundamental principles underpinning their operation. Again in France, one of the greatest scientists, Louis Pasteur, was engaged in the very practical study of the souring of wine, engaged by the vintners, when he came upon the fundamental notion of microscopic life—bacteria—responsible for many human ills, leading, through his work, to the cure of many of the diseases plaguing mankind. 

It was Pasteur who provided us with a quote that gives deep insight into the process of innovation: “In the field of observation, fortune only favors the prepared mind.” Both Carnot and Pasteur had been educated in the tradition of the grandes écoles where the best and brightest received rigorous grounding in mathematics and science, preparing them for careers in service to the nation. Indeed their minds were prepared as witnessed by their seminal contributions to basic science.

MRI: A Case Study

Moving forward, to the mid-twentieth century, let us now consider a major innovation whose origins are, in fact, clearly and firmly grounded in fundamental science: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). What is remarkable about this technology, which provides unparalleled detailed images of the human body, is the combination of different facets of basic science, each of which in its own right is a story of discovery, creativity, and innovation. 

Simply put, MRI measures the density of hydrogen in the human body—we are composed of 50-60 percent water, H2O. This is accomplished using the magnetic properties of the hydrogen nucleus, the proton, which, when placed in strong external magnetic field, aligns itself along the field, as a compass needle does in the earth’s magnetic field. This orientation may be flipped by giving the proton just the right amount of energy through the absorption of a photon of the correct frequency which, as the proton realigns itself with the external magnetic field, is re-emitted—so-called magnetic resonance.

Damadian’s idea for using nuclear induction apparatus and display for detecting cancerous tissue

The origins and understanding of this phenomenon is essentially a history of atomic and nuclear science through the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, from atomic spectroscopy, the nuclear atom, and quantum physics to the observation of proton magnetic resonance by Bloch and Purcell in 1952. 

It was soon realized that the process by which the proton realigns itself after the absorption process depended on the nature of the material environment in which it resides and could therefore be used as a probe of the material at the atomic level. The idea that this might be useful as a medical diagnostic tool came from Raymond Damadian, who suggested that this might distinguish between healthy and cancerous tissue in the human body. This turned out not to be the case, but led to work on the problem of adapting a laboratory phenomenon to the human and medical scale. 

An early apparatus for measuring nuclear magnetic resonance

The magnetic fields needed to align the protons are very large—1 Tesla, or 10,000 times the earth’s magnetic field—and are required to be in a volume large enough to accommodate the human body. The ability to do this stems from the discovery in 1911 of superconductivity, the ability of material to conduct electricity with zero resistance, eventually allowing the construction of large high-field magnets. Over half a century, this turned from a laboratory curiosity into a full-fledged and robust technology driven, interestingly, in large part by the need for high field magnets in accelerators for high energy particle physics.

A modern MRI Scanner

Lauterbur’s and Mansfield’s Advancements

The key ideas that led to MRI as the imaging tool we know today came first from Paul Lauterbur, who solved the problem of obtaining position information from the resonance signal through the realization that the frequency of the resonance depended on the magnetic field and, if the magnetic field were made position dependent, the position information would be encoded in the frequency distribution of the resonance signals. This was elegantly developed by Peter Mansfield, who realized that this frequency distribution was simply the Fourier transform of the spatial source distribution, amenable to fast and accurate computational techniques and therefore to the exquisitely detailed images we see today. For this seminal integration of science and technology leading to the innovation of MRI, Lauterbur and Mansfield were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2003.

This then would appear to be the perfect example of basic science fueling innovation and it behooves to ask how this came about. Several characteristics of innovators are evident: their profound knowledge and understanding of the underlying science and technology, their ability to connect and communicate across disciplinary boundaries, their adventurous and creative spirit, and their access to time and resources to allow the development of their ideas. This latter point is key, relating as it does to exactly what we are supporting when we allocate societal resources to basic science and what kind of environment we are providing to allow innovation to flourish.

Historically, support for science was indirect at best. Scientists were often either individually wealthy, and pursued their investigations as an intellectual curiosity, or were professionals whose careers allowed them the time and resources for scientific work. In Europe, the industrial revolution had underlined the link between science, technology and innovation, leading to the foundation of universities and technical institutes aimed at supporting the needs of trade and industry. Hence, the French grandes écoles, the German Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and the technically oriented “redbrick” universities in Britain. In this regard the United States lagged. The needs of a new nation naturally over weighted the purely practical—the Eli Whitney cotton gin, the John Deere plow, etc. Consequently, the United States produced relatively few great scientists, especially as U.S. universities did not emphasize research, and interested students had to travel to Europe to obtain doctoral degrees. Such research as did exist was largely funded by private wealth—Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.

Science and the “Endless Frontier”

This all changed following WWII. It was clear that the Allied victory owed much to technological innovations based on relatively recent basic science research—radar, penicillin, nuclear weapons, code breaking and encryption, etc. Consequently, Vannevar Bush, the wartime head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, proposed to then President Franklin Roosevelt that the wartime effort be continued through strong government support of basic science—as it had been amply demonstrated, the raw fuel of war-winning innovations. His groundbreaking report, “Science, The Endless Frontier,” eventually led to the foundation of the national laboratories and the National Science Foundation, and formed the basis of the compact between the federal government and the research universities.

Bush’s model was one of unfettered, curiosity-driven research, carried out without any thought of eventual application. Indeed, Bush felt that there must be a strict division between pure and applied research, fearing that market forces would drive out the former in favor of profit. In some sense he was correct but, as our examples have shown, it missed the complexity of the connection between basic science and innovation whereby the innovators must be on both sides of the pure/applied boundary. Indeed, one unfortunate consequence of the division was the culture which arose in many universities in which only basic research, untainted by any connection to the real world, was valued. 

Fortunately, the gap between pure and applied was, for a time, filled by the powerhouse industrial laboratories where pure and applied research co-existed, constrained only by the general area of company business. Indeed, in our example of MRI, the crucial observation of proton magnetic resonance was first observed at Bell Labs, one of the jewels of U.S. research power.

The Way Forward

Sadly, this situation has deteriorated. Driven by pressure on the bottom line, many of the large industrial laboratories have either disappeared or become so goal oriented that the connection to basic science has been lost. Similarly for the national laboratories, they, too, have become increasingly goal oriented, and the mismatch between government and industrial cultures has hampered attempts to translate their basic science to application and innovation. The existence of this problem is well recognized, and reports from both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have pointed to the need to repair and enhance the links from education, to research, to application, and to the market place—all in the interests of preserving the national welfare and security through a robust, knowledge- and innovation-based economy.

So what can we at IIT, and particularly in IIT’s College of Science, do to advance this cause? The answer is—much! As an institute of technology and especially one with IIT’s makeup, we possess many, if not all, the ingredients of innovation. It therefore is incumbent upon us to work to combine these ingredients in the best possible way to facilitate innovation, from the ways in which we educate our students, to the ways in which our faculty conduct their scholarly work, and to ways in which we engage our outside communities. 

Already, we have in place programs and experiences that emphasize the integrative nature of innovation, including degree pathways from the basic sciences to the professions, research experiences for our undergraduate students, IPRO projects to develop teamwork and holistic thinking and action, and the Idea Shop where ideas can be turned into prototypes and reality. But this is not enough.

To take the next step, IIT is planning and raising money for the development and construction of a new building, The Innovation Center, which will act as a campus focus for all the facets of innovation. Not only will it house those programs and activities that already exist at IIT, but it also will become home to new ways of thinking about innovation. Our scientists must learn how to do, our engineers must be firmly grounded in forefront science, and all must be exposed to the mindsets and thinking processes of design, law and business. Not that all our students will go on to be great innovators—such men and women are rare—but all will certainly go on to live and work in an environment of innovation where, to thrive, they must know and understand the true nature of this complex process.

A key goal of “Fueling Innovation: The Campaign for IIT” is to build a transformational Innovation Center on Main Campus.