Economist Debates: Education and innovation: Statements

Innovation that leads to increased productivity is seen as the most important way to generate economic wealth. No surprise, then, that so many people want to promote it as the Western world seeks to recover from recession. President Barack Obama has a strategy for innovation. In Britain there is a government department dedicated to championing it. Others think that innovation works best when government does least. Private companies establish skunk works in the hope of becoming more innovative. Others ask their employees to allocate time to thinking big thoughts. One popular strategy to promote innovation is to invest in maths and science.Maths and science certainly underpin many innovations—indeed, they are the basis for much of modern society, from the gadgets people use to the ways in which people interact with one another and the way in which they think. So close is the relationship that politicians seeking to persuade voters that they are promoting economic growth use “science” and “innovation” almost interchangeably. But, laudable as it is in its own right, does promoting maths and science represent the best way to stimulate future innovation?Yes, says Chris Budd, an applied mathematician at Bath University in Britain, and the defender of the motion. He points to the mathematical foundations of the commercial world: the internet, computers, mobile phones, modern medicine and even transport systems. These employ branches of mathematics that were considered obscure until recently but have found applications in areas such as building search engines, he argues. It is difficult to predict which new scientific advance will generate new economic activity but science nevertheless boosts productivity. And as governments have sought to promote business, they have encouraged universities to establish spin-off companies and to build partnerships with other fledgling organisations seeking to develop new products and new processes, which has helped to generate wealth.That may all be true, but it is not sufficient, says Chris Trimble, who co-wrote “The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge” with Vijay Govindarajan, both of whom conduct research into innovation at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in America. Of course maths and science can stimulate future innovation, but promoting these disciplines is not necessarily the best way of bringing about change. He cites targeted incentives, public and private spending and—most importantly, in his view—better management as more powerful alternatives. It is management education not technical education that is lacking, he argues. There is a surfeit of bright ideas but not enough wherewithal to implement them.Yet the ability to create wealth not only depends on using tools that were scientifically designed; it also requires people to think both creatively and in cold, calculating ways. To misquote Thomas Edison, innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Time then, mentally, to roll up your sleeves.

Economist Debates: Education and innovation: Statements

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