Brain power

The link between basic research and innovation

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

When it comes to funding and resourcing innovation, it is crucial to identify the importance of various phases of innovation. For instance, pure research can often feel a million miles from anything fit for release onto the market, but is nonetheless a crucial part of the pipeline that underpins those innovations that are nearer to the market end of things.

With a lot of public money going into such pure research having strong ROI metrics attached to it, being able to see the value in work at such an early stage of the innovation process is key.

A recent study1 set out to do just that and find a clear connection between pure scientific research and patentable inventions. The research looked at any connections that exist between every single patent issued between 1976 and 2015 by the US Patent and Trademark Office (of which there were around 4.8 million), and every single journal article published since WW2 (around 32 million).

Forms of innovation

These provide an important initial distinction, because patents are usually filed by businesses looking to commercialize innovation, whilst research papers are typically produced by universities. The researchers created a social network style map to connect up the two, by using the citations contained within each. This is crucial, because both papers and patents provide insights and references to the work upon which they’re based.

The authors then used an algorithm to determine the shortest distance between two items based upon the number of citations received.

Intriguingly, they found a clear and constant flow between pure science and practical innovations. Whilst there are, of course, some papers that are rarely cited by future work, of those with at least one citation, a whopping 80% contributed to a future patent. Similarly, 61% of all patents referenced a research paper.

What’s more, with the majority of patents and papers are at a distance of 2-4 items from other domains, regardless of the discipline, suggesting a high degree of recombination. Equally, the innovations (patents) with the highest commercial impact, also had the highest amount of science behind them.

“Overall, our findings suggest that basic research matters. Scientific advances are not like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear. Rather, looking across the corpus of science, we find widespread connections to future patents – especially to the most valuable patents,” the authors say.

So, whilst pure scientific research can feel very abstract and a million miles away from anything practical, the paper finds instead that the vast majority of practical, usable advances entering the market have a lot to thank those pure researchers for, even if the connections between them are indirect.

Article source: The link between basic research and innovation.


  1. Ahmadpoor, M., & Jones, B. F. (2017). The dual frontier: Patented inventions and prior scientific advance. Science, 357(6351), 583-587.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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