Three Ways Academia Could Contribute to Innovation…But Does Not

There a number of pressing needs that face the world today. Mega issues such as climate change, food insecurity, the need for innovative healthcare, clean water and sustainable energy threaten the current lifestyle of each person on the planet.

The situation is dire. The onus is upon each of us to do our part to contribute to more sustainable lifestyles and mitigate impending risks for future generations.

Save for a few Elon Musks, most people are simply going about their lives as normal. Academics included. Innovation is the key to the change needed.

The ultimate disruptive technology is one that fundamentally changes the way lives are lived.

This means that an app to forecast Pokemon activity does not suffice.

True “disruption” occurs at the lab bench, in the manufacturing facility or while lamenting a roadblock.

Public perception of innovation needs to be reset and academic pursuits redirected to areas of legitimate concern.

Society needs a cohesive effort to mitigate issues and implement sustainable solutions for the future. Unfortunately, the most qualified among us are not incentivized to contribute to societal progress.

Academics, therefore, tend to focus their work on mundane minutia instead of the most pressing societal needs.

Mega issues are “mega” because they are a multi-faceted collision of confounding problems.

We need a concerted effort from the intellectual community to guide the rest of the world on the best courses of action. That would be data based decision making implemented in real time.

Right now, persons are so fixated on small-scale interactions that they miss out on large scale trends. The lack of worthy engagement in the ivory tower is killing the world as we know it.

It really is the role of the intellectual to take the lead.

Industry is blinded by the immediate issues in their supply chain so companies often lack the foresight to truly mitigate systemic challenges. Policy makers typically have neither the expertise nor the context to understand all the complexities of a problem. In truth, everyone needs a seat at the table, but academia should lead the way.

Here are 3 ways academia could be more effective in the pursuit of implementing innovative ideas:

Stop pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. 

Given the state of the global economy, the climate and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we need to take relevant, systematic action that is truly innovative.

The time for talk and wonking around in the lab for years on end is over. Let’s get to action. Let’s get innovating. Let’s make sure that scientists are integrated into the conversation.

Basic research has its place, but now is the time for applied work to take center stage. The issue of global temperature rise is so immediate, for example, that we literally just need to go with the best solution as we know it today and edit as we go along.


Shed the proverbial lab coat and meet practitioners in the marketplace to better understand the most critical science-based needs facing our society...and study those topics.   

On the outside, researchers appear support disruptive innovation but practical realities do not support that theory. But think about it.

How many academics do you see actually going out educating the population on the threat of sea level rise?

How many research scientists put their money behind companies that deliver solutions associated with the long-term problems they research?

How many clinicians invest in biotech startups?

It is imperative that we engage in science-based conversations that include the context for societal and economic influences. We need to foster a greater level of critical evaluation for innovative product design and practical solutions to today’s problems.


Realize that, contrary to common ideology in the scientific community, the world does not revolve solely around a microscope stage. 

There are a multitude of contributors that play an active role in bringing innovation to the marketplace. While engineers and scientists are integral in some sectors, the reality is that business persons, marketers and policy makers are all intimately involved in bringing new ideas to the public eye. True innovation recognizes the value in all players.

This means that even terminally educated science professionals should not be stuck in the ivory tower or have preconceived notions that science and engineering are sole considerations for systemic change.

The private sector and entrepreneurship hold the keys to the most desirable future for society.

How might science and the academy play an effective role in enabling enterprise to shape the world of tomorrow?

How else can academia actually be useful and help drive society into a sustainable lifestyle with a truly innovative economy?


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Richelle Thomas, PhD

Dr. Thomas is a science communicator at the intersection of materials science research, ideation and innovation. As a Fulbright scholar, she is constantly in search of ways to leverage scientific innovation for business and entrepreneurship applications. She has had roles in process development for building materials, corporate sustainability and government affairs.

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