Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What's Next in Science & Technology

By Ikhlaq Sidhu

A Blueprint for A New Standard in Science & Technology

The world needs advancement from science and technology more than ever. Science and Technology has played a key role in our understanding of the world. This includes the structure of the atom, understanding DNA, the creation of the transistor, the concept of computing machines, and so much more. Science and Technology is a fundamental driver of the advancement of human condition, industry, and economics.

However, the fact is that our advancement is not complete. The world is still being developed and improved. Our environment and resources are depleting. Cyberterrorism is rampant. People still suffer. Industry faces constant disruption. And even in a data-driven society, there is a decreasing consensus in what truth is.

Filling the gap between the pure science and technology research and global advancement is important to everyone. Studies at Berkeley have shown that while the general population does understand the value of job-oriented education, these same populations are still not able to connect the value of science and technology research, except for advancements in medicine, to their daily lives.

Over hundreds of years, universities have played the key role in development of the sciences, engineering, and technology. However, there is an opportunity to do more. As it turns out, traditional Science, Technology, and Engineering institutions were never designed or organized to directly impact global challenges and industry evolutions.

A Comparison of Two Models of Impact from Science and Technology

There is an opportunity to reinvent and grow the global impact from Science and Technology. Let’s understand why this is true by comparing two models for impact. Niels Bohr and Steve Jobs are both created significant impact based on science and technology. Yet, they used very different approaches to achieve their results.

No alt text provided for this image

Science, Technology, and Engineering Tend to Go Deep

Let’s first take an example of the famous scientist, Niels Bohr, who postulated the structure of an atom and received the Nobel Prize in physics.  He used the approach most often used by academics, which is to go deeper and deeper into the silo of his field. Let’s call this going deep within-the-box.  His method is to carefully examine what does not match and to examine the spaces in the literature where the understanding is not clear. He never worked directly on an application. He left that to others. Direct applications of science and deep tech tend to be serendipitous or accidental. Yet, Bohr’s contribution provided fundamental understanding to build technology for the next 50 years before more accurate models of the atom were eventually accepted.

No alt text provided for this image

Innovative Impact Comes from Connecting Boxes

By contrast, there is another type of impact from science, technology, and engineering. This is the model used in industry. Let’s compare the approach of someone like Steve Jobs, probably one of the most famous innovators in recent times, who created tremendous impact on the way people live and work. His method was different; he did not go deep within any one science or technology box, but he connected the boxes with application in mind. Note that this is not the same as simply putting 3 experts from different disciplines in a room together.

Innovators like Steve Jobs also fill open spaces in knowledge, but instead of looking for the discontinuities in the literature, they look for discontinuities in the venture constellation. Innovators and their firms also tend to be investment driven, well-funded, fast, and impact-oriented. In fact, new ventures have become today’s innovation labs. If you look at the Google, Apple, or other leading technology ventures, their direct impact is simply enormous by any standard. This model naturally results in innovation. Application is intentional, and not by accident or serendipity.

There is a Major Gap

As much as science, technology, and engineering institutions have contributed to the world, there is still a major gap with today’s industry evolutions. The type of work done by a Niels Bohr or other traditional academics is far removed from that of Steve Jobs. And it is similarly far from solving global challenges such as climate change, sustaining healthcare, the future of mobility, or industry evolutions such as the Metaverse. Both the Bohr and Jobs approach are needed. One is not more important than the other. However, because these models of discovery and impact are so different, the result is that researchers have had only limited success with “Use-Inspired Research”. Students are left disconnected from applications and real-world problems. Direct impact is slow and inefficient.

This Gap is the Opportunity for a New Standard in Science and Technology

However, because the gap is so large, there is the opportunity for a model that combines elements of both approaches. Borrowing from the innovator, the structure that starts with an investment thesis and examines open spaces in venture landscape. And then borrowing from the research, the model that uses the traditional methods such as finding discontinuities to create knowledge in technical and policy areas.  When combined, the knowledge creation will not be in a random space, but in a high impact space.

Let’s consider the parallel idea that research is filling a gap – “like a pothole” - where the knowledge to be filled is simply not understood yet. Researchers are well equipped to fill knowledge gaps and find the discontinuities. While innovation processes are tuned to identify the areas or places which are most valuable to fill.

The point is that it would be less preferable to fill random potholes possibly on rural roads with almost no traffic, (i.e. without investment thesis or context) versus the filling of targeted high-traffic roads or roads where accidents have occurred (using an investment thesis or and contextual information) to maximize impact.  

Foreshadowing of the Impact Lab

A new area for science and technology institutions is indeed possible. In fact, many leading schools have been working to close the gaps between academics, industry, and societal needs by experimenting with new teaching and research models. As these trends continue, teaching will continue to become more multi-disciplinary and simultaneously offer breadth and depth. Meanwhile, applied research has started to mix traditional research with venture acceleration processes.

We don’t have all the answers yet, however, we are starting to envision a key element of the new Science and Technology Segment called an “Impact Lab”. An Impact Lab is designed to combine high impacts student experiences with new research infrastructure. Impact Labs are a new approach that mix the traditional research, investment thesis, and agile programmatic operations.

What this Mean for Academics

Academic institutions will have the opportunity to grow in new high impact areas. Consider these high-level drivers that illustrate the state of the Science, Technology, and Engineering:

1.    Broader and more connected education is required

Traditionally, Engineering and STEM education was designed to create narrow problem solvers, but the challenges of today cannot be solved only with narrow solutions. Today’s problems require multi-dimensional trade-offs with technical and non-technical decisions as well as behaviors for innovation and leadership.

2.    Research silos are not enough

Scientific research is being conducted everywhere. However, it is neither sufficient, nor is it the limiting reagent, required for impact and global advancement. Meanwhile, well-funded new ventures, which use connective and multi-disciplinary approaches, have become the new advanced product development labs of today.

Taken together, this means that the world has been changing and that leading institutions will have the opportunity to open their boundaries, take on new types of challenges, fuse their disciplines, adjust their teaching models, change their focus to impact, and position themselves to actually “assume responsibility for global advancement”.