Leveraging innovation

LEVERAGING INNOVATION        an OPINION ARTICLE by P. Gómez-Romero, May 2015

Leverage is a word and a concept that has been so strongly absorbed and distorted by the financial world that we might have forgotten its original meaning. Yet, a lever is a very powerful tool, concept and metaphor from the physical world able to multiply our force, and hence our ability to move or change things. It is in this sense that the title of this article is written. The word levering is normally used in a too literal way and rescuing leverage for common use would be a great way to widen its semantic power.

the leveraging power of knowledge

So, how can we leverage the power of R+D to enhance its capacity to improve energy technologies? There are many extra-scientific factors which can help R+D in the implementation of the incoming sustainable model, but the first ones coming to mind are short-term economic factors. Indeed, not much discussion is needed in order to ascertain that nowadays funding is vital to sustain any scientific activity. More debate would certainly come when deciding on funding priorities. Science vs. Technology, fundamental science vs. applied science or mine vs. yours make fascinating topics for discussions at the highest intellectual level. Networks, strategic lines and other top-down inventions to attain critical mass in a certain area are also fashionable, politically correct ways for funneling funding. There is no doubt that the allocation of limited resources has to be wisely planned; what is more questionable is the amount of time and effort that scientist put in managing the creation of science, a management which is almost univocally associated to funding.

Leo Szilárd was a Hungarian-born American physicist who was one of the fathers of both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein’s signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. As for many others, Hiroshima and Nagasaki turned him into an activist against nuclear proliferation. In 1961 Szilárd published a collection of short science-fiction tales under the title of “The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories”. One of the Other Stories was that of the Mark Gable Foundation, in which the millionaire Mark Gable believes scientific progress is too fast and would like to retard Science. In order to do that, he gets a very simple advice: set up a multimillion dollar foundation and offer grants


Leo Szilard

Leo Szilard

Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could mail out a convincing case. Have ten committees, each committee composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as [very well paid] chairmen.

The scheme is simple and not so fictional: the best scientists are taken out of research to work evaluating the proposals written by the rest, who will in turn be out of the lab just to write proposals. The truth is real life has surpassed Szilard’s ironic vision. Not just the best, but each and every scientist in the scientific establishment continuously evaluates and is evaluated. Proposals, strategic plans, papers, thesis, a plethora of different reports… essentially, at no extra cost. And, just in case internal supervision was not enough, external audits from time to time; paid, of course.

Easing bureaucratic hurdles would provide great short-term leverage for research. This would not mean eliminating due supervision, especially important when public money is involved. It might just mean reversing a trend which has shown a positive derivative of paperwork production with a fractal multiplicity of funding programs at the regional, national, European and international level, each of them with their own subprograms, each insufficient to cover the real long-term needs of any laboratory.


A second leveraging factor for research, also working in the short term, is provided by effective Technology Transfer (TT) or in a broader sense, Knowledge Transfer. No matter how disruptive a new principle, concept, process or advanced material may be, it will only affect society when integrated implemented and used in a given technology. And no matter how wonderful a given technology may be, it will not prevail unless potential users (whether individuals, companies or governments) will accept it and adopt it. TT could then be considered as the last and crucial step on the path from fundamental knowledge to marketable products. The overall knowledge transfer involves the primary thrust of Science flooding different fields with fundamental knowledge, thus widening the possibilities for technology to adopt and apply that knowledge in response to a final market pull. But this apparently simple linear scheme is neither simple nor linear. Frequently technologies directly affect and boost fundamental knowledge (Volta’s pile or the electron microscope are just two good examples). Also, frequently, technology push as opposed to market pull can make for the most progressive innovations. Indeed, market pull normally leads to evolutionary change in response to a market demand. R+D related to market pull should be the direct responsibility of manufacturing industries. The leverage factor for innovative R+D would come from the technology push approach which might need the involvement of venturing industries or the stepping up of entrepreneurial researchers into the world of start-up companies, most commonly in the form of a spin-off from his or her own University or Research Institution.

Also related to technology and continuing with the frequently forgotten importance of technological breakthroughs in the creation of new fundamental knowledge we could discuss leveraging provided by Background Technological Infrastructure. It is not impossible, albeit quite difficult and unlikely that the path from knowledge to product could take place by spontaneous generation in a technology-deprived environment. Without going into any lengthy discussion, we could just mention a few illustrative examples and correlations.

Maybe the most publicized technological garden ever has been the one flourishing during the second half of the 20th Century in Silicon Valley, California, initially bred by Stanford University. But the world of energy also has well-known examples of technological breeders for war and peace. Indeed, after the primary use of nuclear fission to induce big explosions (in New Mexico first, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and eventually two thousand more), nuclear chain reactions were targeted also for energy production eventually leading to the “Atoms for Peace” program. The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity (though a minimal amount) was the small Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) designed and operated by Argonne National Laboratory and sited in Idaho, USA. The reactor started up in December 1951. This and the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) technology, intended for submarines and developed also by the USA were important precedents for nuclear energy. It was probably not by chance, then, that the first fully commercial PWR (Yankee Rowe, 250 MWe), which started up in 1960 was designed by Westinghouse in the USA. Meanwhile the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) was also developed by the Argonne National Laboratory, and the first one (Dresden-1 of 250 MWe), designed by General Electric, was started up earlier in 1960. It should be noted though that efforts were also intense on the other side of the Looking-Glass, In the Soviet Union, where the first nuclear power electricity generator began its operation in Obninsk, in 1954.

Half a century later is not fission but fusion which is at (long) stake. And it was just natural that, after the USA renouncing and upon negotiations with Japan, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER, the way) was decided to be built in Cadarache (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur, France) and not Vandellós (Catalonia, Spain), taking advantage of the larger nuclear technological facilities and experience of the French.

But in the energy world there is place for everyone and every technology and again, it is not by chance that the technology developed by CIEMAT at Plataforma Solar de Almería (Andalusia, Spain) was behind the construction of the first commercial thermal-solar power tower facility in the world, PS10, built and operated since 2007 by Abengoa in Sanlúcar la Mayor (Andalusia, Spain).

Public policy on energy issues has always played (for example “Atoms for Peace”) and will always play a major role in the evolution of the energy market and will have a great effect on the path at which that evolution takes place. Indirectly, by affecting the market will also play a role in energy innovation. For example, measures to phase out incandescent light bulbs primarily favor companies ahead of manufacturing compact fluorescent lights which, presumably, will have an interest in innovation through R+D (in addition to marketing) in order to keep their competitive edge. They might even jump ahead to the next technology push led by superior LED technologies. Let us remind ourselves here that the only hope for western industrial corporations playing a decisive role in our global market will be a strategy relying on innovation. Short-haul strategies based on lowering costs and salaries are exhausted, the tide of global relocation and delocalization will recede and the only long-established vantage strategy will remain the long-haul investment in R+D leading to innovation.

In the context of our present evolution towards a more sustainable energy model, policy must be a primary factor to correct market barriers and even plain failures, the most striking of which are non-internalized costs of conventional technologies, briefly mentioned above. In other words, the real but unpriced costs or negative externalities. Indeed, a major market failure is that prices of fossil fuels generally do not adequately reflect a variety of associated social costs (from direct or emissions contaminations, to greenhouse gas emissions, to oil wars). Thus, the absence of an adequate price for fossil energy fuels results in these goods being consumed above social optimum. Energy policy should be consistent, coherent with the pursuing of overall social benefit and lasting. Otherwise we run the risk of suffering drawbacks like recent regulation in Spain which could even result in absurd penalties for the use of PV solar for self-consumption. A reminder that what we could call nutcracker leverage is also possible.

In addition to short-term leveraging factors for innovation, we can easily find a whole series of other factors which are also of the greatest importance, except that their influence is felt in the medium and long terms. These are generally related to education as well as to more immediate information and communication (not Information and Communication Technologies, but to actual information and communication). Indeed, the media play a very important role in keeping the public informed about the latest accomplishments of Science and Technology. However, when information goes beyond reporting on the latest technological gadget, and delves into far-reaching long-term problems like energy, sustainability or global warming, information and communication grow both in importance and in difficulty. To begin with, it is a very difficult challenge to keep the interest of the public in a slowly developing issue like global warming. But also, flash news on the latest battery development are recurrent and can lead to saturation. The truth is journalists need headlines and scientists need prestige. When science news is just based on mutually satisfying these needs, chances are the result will be untrustworthy. On the contrary, synergy between scientists and journalists arises when there is a common objective, focused on informing as accurately and completely as possible on a given topic. A synergy which should be cherished and strengthened on the part of the scientists if we want to keep the positive social perception generally enjoyed by our trade. Furthermore, in addition to this necessary partnership with the media, scientists themselves should take responsibility to reach out and share their views with all citizens, first hand. This important aspect of social communication of science should not be limited to delivering our final conclusions for a given topic but should also foster the use of science and knowledge tools, open debate and dialogue between scientists and society.

Among long-term leveraging factors for innovation we have saved a last-but-not-least space for education. Plain education. Of course, scientific and technical education for as many as possible; but not just that. Scientific literacy for all would be a good starting point. Then, we all know how important that science teacher, or that physics or chemistry professor was for our career.

The brief account of leveraging factors included in this section was not intended as an intellectual or scientific analysis. Instead, it has been an attempt to show how many different extra-scientific factors affect more or less directly but always substantially the scientific activity. We should realize that essentially all of these factors (with the possible exception of influencing nutcracker policy makers) are within the reach of professional scientists. This section could be an invitation to take part in any of these powerful activities. From teaching and education, to popular science talks, from spin-off entrepreneurship to policy-making, there is plenty of room out of the lab.