Cutting edge

February 5, 1999

David Wield

Director of the Centre for Technology Strategy and chair of the development policy and practice group at the Open University

If biotechnology innovators want to be successful, they should not compartmentalise their research.

Four of Europe's largest companies (Zeneca, Astra, Rhone-Poulenc and Hoechst) announce merger proposals - all citing the need to consolidate research-led life sciences. What does this mean for biotechnology innovation in Europe? And where is agricultural biotechnology left in all this given the apparent emphasis on pharmaceuticals and public concern about genetically modified foods?

Can research survive in countries like Tanzania and Mozambique given the fall in basic resources for development over the past decade or two? Why does the linear model (that innovation can be separated into little boxes: basic research leading to applied, new product ideas, commercialisation and so on), continue to dominate research policies given its obvious inadequacy?

It is these policy-oriented inter and trans-disciplinary questions that make me excited and keep me and my colleagues busy.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, researchers got trained through an unusual programme. The then social science and science research councils set up a joint committee to fund a whole gamut of discipline-bound young scientists and social scientists to develop multi and inter-disciplinary research skills. I come from this background and my research, in the policy and management of technology, focused on organisational transformation and international development. I am particularly interested in alternatives to the linear model of innovation that allows better understanding of complex interactions. This interest allows focus on a range of activities in two research units at the Open University.

Off the Leading Edge is a collaborative research programme with colleagues at Stanford University based on the premise that prescriptive models of what constitutes the leading edge could better be exchanged for a clearer understanding of technological and organisational trajectories in firms. Our research on and with many firms all over the world suggests that technological capabilities can be generated in very unpromising circumstances but that their rapid development depends on institutional alliances and networks. It seems there are many types of "edge" and that study of technology away from what is the "normal leading edge", in less developed countries and less chic sectors, provides rich insights. The implication is that there is no one blueprint for firm technology strategy.

Such research cannot easily be done in one research unit. The Centre for Technology Strategy has a range of similar programmes. One interdisciplinary programme concerns the extent to which European biotech and agrochemicals industries can deliver more socially and environmentally sustainable farming systems. This research needs to consider the whole food chain, international trade policy and public attitudes towards genetically modified crops and agro-pesticides. The funding is from the European Commission, which is involved in a complex policy-making process that must take into account public concern about the scientific uncertainties of genetic modification and environmental pollution, but where "harmonisation" cannot be a simple static regulation resulting from one kind of risk analysis.

Funding is not easy but is probably no tougher than for other more disciplinary research. Sadly though, the UK's institutional research evaluation (the RAE) does not deal well with such research. A recent survey of "interdisciplinary" research, for example, lumped together multi, cross, with inter-disciplinary, precisely losing the core of what constitutes inter-disciplinarity. Our research will be assessed in different categories - which gave three different gradings in 1996.

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