Cataloguing Innovation

Idea lightbulb

An intriguing paper on the notion of idea generation came to my attention this week. It’s from the International Journal of Management Practice, which might have suggested something rather dry and off topic, but the first named author Roy Woodhead is in the School of Technology, at Oxford Brookes University, UK and researches in the field of “IT service management” while his co-author, M.A. Berawi at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is currently researching value management and innovation in the context of major civil engineering projects.

So, what made this paper stand out? Well, seemingly its main conclusion is that over recent years management-speak has overtaken, perhaps not surprisingly some would say, the actual generation of ideas within an industry, an R&D environment, or elsewhere. So, the whole idea of coming up with something new, inventing, in other words, has become detached from the practical and been lost in the processes of managing information. Common sense, apparently, has once again been usurped by the need to organise.

Management is not wholly to blame for this disjuncture, the researchers hint. In fact, they point out that the reason for the split boils down to an assumption about how our brains work in creative mode. This cognitive theory of creativity holds that ideas are located exclusively within the human brain. This assumption, Woodhead and Berawi suggest has led to a dearth of research into how creativity leads to new ideas because it seems like a problem already solved. This has stifled research into idea generation.

Now, Woodhead and Berawi say it is time to challenge this assumption and to build an alternative view based on the relationship between our intentions and their effects, which could develop new perspectives on idea generation by helping us understand that ideas are not the simply the product of the human mind but are the product of a wide range of information sources and responses to them. It may be obvious, most ideas do not emerge spontaneously from our subconscious, they are seeded and moulded by what we sense and the information we acquire. It may be obvious, but this was apparently not considered part of the theory of idea generation.

The researchers tear into the conventional wisdom of idea generation and the approaches used in management to stimulate R&D and to appraise ideas, they have taken case studies among major technological organisations, predominantly in the oil industry as their raw materials. They emphasise that poor performance among those charged with generating ideas is usually seen as a weakness of the individuals involved, rather than a problem with the assumptions about the standard idea generation techniques employed. As such, the researchers say, under-performance of better idea generation is left unquestioned.

The researchers’ conclusions seem, in retrospect, rather obvious, but they have apparently been ignored for many years because of strongly held belief in a cognitive theory that does not bear closer scrutiny. “We believe our potential to generate new possibilities has been reduced by the view that ideas originate within an individual,” the researchers state. After all, you would not expect a child to be able to design an efficient nuclear power station or devise a recycling system for a metropolis. In this notion lies the key to better idea generation. “Idea generation is something to do with the way external systems work, our knowledge of their workings and an ability to conceive of alternative ways to make things happen.” In other words, our minds can manipulate a new idea, but the new idea emerges not endogenously but from the relationship between mind and world.

Passionate Publisher

My old friend Peter Gölitz this year celebrates a quarter century as Editor-in-Chief of the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie. When he took over the editorship of the German Chemical Society’s premier chemistry journal in 1982, there were just four other chemists on the editorial staff and the journal published a mere 1000 pages a year. More than 9 out of 10 papers were from Germany. How things have changed.

Angewandte is now a weekly publication, is available online, and has an annual pagecount of 9000 pages. German authors are still the largest group of contributors, but four out of every five articles
published has an international team member. Oh, and Peter has a little more help these days than he did 25 years ago with 18 PhD chemists and 9 other colleagues helping run the show.

Peter is rather proud of the journal’s ISI impact factor, which ha srisen from a little over a “4” in 1982 to better than a 10 this year. It’s even surpassed several of its established competitors in this respect. During my New Scientist years, papers from Angewandte featured prominently in my reporting, partly this was because the journal seemed so much more accessible than the heavier grey tomes from other publishers. More than that though, much of the chemistry published seemed to have at least the potential of immediate applications and often flaunted this with an enticing graphic…perfect for pop science.

Congratulations, Peter, and here’s to the next quarter century ;-)

Grass Comes With Weedkiller


No, it’s not another scare story about the dangers of illicit drugs, even if you don’t inhale. Researchers at Cornell U have discovered that at least one strain of common or garden grass, fescue grass to be precise, produces its own herbicide to prevent weeds growing in your lawn.

Frank Schroeder of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell has identified an amino acid, meta-tyrosine, or m-tyrosine, produced by these lawn grasses and exuded from their roots in large quantities, which act as natural herbicides. It was colleague Cecile Bertin now research director for PharmAfrican, a Montreal-based biopharmaceuticals company, who made the initial discovery that fescue grasses inhibit plants from growing around them. The identification of m-tyrosine could lead to novel natural product garden herbicides. While m-tyrosine itself is too water soluble to be applied directly as a herbicide a less hydrophilic analog might be developed that could keep your lawn weed free, naturally.

In our household, lawn weeds are the least of our worries and I wish they would engineer a new strain of grass that prevents labrador puppies from urinating on the grass and leaving brown patches of dead turf.


Back to Fundamentals


Is there any justification for spending public money on fundamental scientific research for which there is no obvious potential for technological application, wealth creation, or any obvious purpose other than the advancement of human knowledge? If the decision were left to the short-sighted or those with no appreciation of what it is to see the wider horizon of blue skies research then it is unlikely that budgets would ever be stretched beyond funding the kind of research that provides almost instantaneous gratification, immediate payback, and obvious applications.

Jean-Jacques Salomon emeritus Professor of Technology and Society and the Director of the Centre Science, Technologie et Société, Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM), in Paris, France, explains that there is no way to measure the pay-off of basic research activities. He suggests that the reason governments deem to spend taxpayers’ money in this area is actually quite ideological rather than bearing the stamp of economic common sense.

Writing in the International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development (2007, 1, 125-135), he explains that even in times of privatisation, liberalisation, and reduced state intervention, there are good reasons for such public investments. But, how much is enough and how much would be too much?

Many of those in the world of commercial science would perhaps see any spending on fundamental science as untenable unless there were at least some vague opportunity for commercial exploitation of the results within a reasonable timeframe. In contrast the scientists in academia carrying out fundamental research see it as an essential part of any nation’s science base. They often cite the case of the molecule that fell to earth, buckminsterfullerene. The discovery of the all-carbon C60 molecule emerged from fundamental science that went even beyond blue skies into interstellar chemistry. Surely, this area of research could have no earthly application?

Well, yes and no. Buckminsterfullerene itself is yet to demonstrate any potent commercial viability, but on the other hand, without the discovery of that unique molecule we may not have seen the development of the so-called buckytubes, the elongated cousins of buckminsterfullerene known more formally as carbon nanotubes.

Fundamental, basic, or pure research is a fuzzy concept. There are of course, free-floating ideas that are perhaps nothing more than the rhetorical quests of scientists given the freedom to explore fully, but there are also designer labs that work on esoteric concepts, maverick hypotheses, and bizarre theoretical notions, purely with the aim of converting their outputs into something more tangible. That’s not to say they are commercially driven, just that they know that if only they can meld the right ingredients in the right proportions then something useful must emerge.

As Harvey Brooks said, ‘Basic science per se, contributes to culture, it contributes to our social well-being, including national defence, and public health; to our economic well-being, and it is an essential element of the education not only of scientists, but also of the population as a whole.’ Can you put a price on that? Well, governments must, Brooks is on record as suggesting that a 15% annual increase is minimal in order to cope with the forecast population of graduates students and faculty. But, Salomon points out that there is no fixed ratio between the amount of resources to which basic research can aspire and those devoted to other research activities.

In terms of fundamentals in Europe, Salomon suggests that the new European Research Council will be in a position to contribute to improvement of basic science. He asks whether assessing R&D indicators should therefore be part of the default responsibilities of any assessment of how well pure science should be funded.

Research Blogging IconSalomon, J. (2007). Why sustain fundamental research? International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development, 2 (1) DOI: 10.1504/IJTLID.2007.015400

Open Access Drugs

Should drugs be open access? What about open source? Well, a step towards what some would sees as a utopia and others as the end of pharma R&D, could soon be taken with a proposed legislative bill in the US that seeks to make all pharmaceutical patents public domain.

There are some observers that suggest the existence of a patents culture in the pharma industry stifles research and development. Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, who has argued vehemently against pharma patents for years, has suggested a bounty system for medical cures. Now, Senator Bernie Sanders has taken up Stiglitz’ idea and has proposed a new law in Congress that would set aside US$80 billion a year as an incentive to pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs that would then be put in the public domain.

Technology writer Wayne Smallman is one of several people to suggest that removing the restrictions of patents from the pharmaceutical industry would open up a whole new drug discovery process because even previously unpatentable drugs, such as DCA, for instance, might be developed into marketable products with an injection of cash from something like the Bill Gates Foundation. This idea basically extends the Sanders’ bounty concept to the private funders. After all, $80billion is but a handful of blockbuster products over a ten-year lifespan.

One potential benefit of releasing researchers from the patent bind though is that they will be able to publish their papers that much sooner, which would then hopefully accelerate science still further.

Pick and Comment

Okay, here’s the thing. Sciencebase is now getting around 2000 spam comments every day. So, if I take a break, like I did this week, that’s a vast cr*pflood to check through even with the help of the Akismet spam filter and the Auntie Spam Greasemonkey script for Firefox that compresses and labels Akismet’s findings.

I just passed the 1200 posts mark on this blog and a total of 1200 or so legitimate comments and questions have been posted here by you, the readers. That’s one comment per post, on average, give or take a few. Some posts, such as any that mention the science and religion debate, Richard Dawkins or perpetual motion machines seem to elicit a flurry of comments, but other posts, which personally I predicted would stimulate discussion, seem not to get any comments at all.

Could it be that the vast majority of my posts are simply so wonderfully written and self contained that there is nothing more for you to add? I doubt it! Could it be that no one is actually reading Sciencebase? Well, with 2700 or so RSS subscribers, 1000 podcasters, and several thousand unique visitors to the site each day, that cannot be true either.

I know I shouldn’t worry that the blog receives relatively few comments even compared to countless blogs with fewer subscribers, but I would like to feel that this blog was more than just my random rants and raves and that there might be an opportunity for dialog across cyberspace.

So, here’s the challenge, have a dig around among my blog archives and pick out a post that piques your interest (it could be this one, if you like), leave a pertinent comment on that post of, say, at least 20 words. I’ll then pick out the most inspirational ten new comments over the coming week and post a summary next weekend together with a back link in that post to a site of the commentator’s choice (so be sure to include the web address you want linked in the comment form).

To get you started here are a few links to posts that have proved popular (i.e. were visited the most): Medical marijuana, No More Chocolate Headaches, and Benzene Soda.

Well…what are you waiting for, comment away…

High-speed MS Diagnosis is in the Eyes

Bacteriophage nuclease

MRI brain scans have recently been used to calibrate and corroborate the results of a new eye-scanning technique that can diagnose multiple sclerosis symptoms in just a few minutes. The technique, optical coherence tomography (OCT), scans the layers of nerve fibres in the retina to reveal nerve damage associated with the disease. The quick test will ultimately complement more detailed MRI studies of the brain when nerve damage is found an be useful in monitoring how effective treatment is. More on this in the latest issue of which goes live on November 1 (Sciencebase readers can get a sneak preview here)

Also, in the new issue, I discuss new research that could help pharmaceutical companies distinguish more easily between the different possible forms – polymorphs – of their products. The approach does not need to be used with a pure crystalline product and so works on formulated tablets. Researchers at the University of Warwick working with colleagues at Astra Zeneca have demonstrated that solid-state proton NMR spectroscopy can be used to crack the polymorphic secret of drugs by focusing on hydrogen atoms. The discovery could allow pharmaceutical companies to eradicate unwanted polymorphs from their formulations and so potentially improve drug efficacy and safety. Once again, you can get a sneak preview here

Also, in the new issue: A new grid technology that allows images from different analytical sources to be superimposed with high precision and so provide a mashup of X-ray fluorescence results on the inorganic components of a sample with an infrared image of the organic parts. The researchers who developed the technique say that their grid technology could be as useful in medical diagnostics and biomedical research as in environmental studies. More on this here.

Other research covered includes a study of bacteriophage DNA that could help explain how we get our mother’s eyes but not our father’s nose, and how Raman spectroscopy might explain the bacterial activity that is destroying ancient Italian frescoes – all on

Alchemical Reactions

Cannabis leaf

The latest issues of my ChemWeb Alchemist and Reactive Reports columns are both available online.

Headline stories this month ask important questions, such as: Why does cannabis get you “high”? What is it about the psychoactive component in marijuana, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, that exerts its special effects? Researchers hoping to use THC as a therapeutic agent in medicine, for treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other painful disorders, for instance, and others seeking to understand drug addiction, would certainly like to know precisely how cannabis works. New results reported in Reactive Reports this month could fill in some of the gaps.

We also find out what happens when your buckyballs rattle in their cage, learn how to kit out your Apple iPod (other mp3 players are available) with a nanoscopic radio. Add to that the discovery that a rare form of carbon dioxide could be to blame for the searing greenhouse effect…on Venus.

Chocoholics will not be surprised to learn that research by chocolate manufacturer Nestlé has shown a link between a love of chocolate and a specific chemical signature programmed into our body’s metabolism. There’s also news in The Alchemist that reveals the structure of a key enzyme that could underpin genetic uniqueness of offspring and so explain how you can have your mother’s eyes but not your father’s nose…

Also in Reactive Reports this week and sure to raise the hackles of anyone who sees the fatal flaws in the notion of a hydrogen economy, is a report on a new catalyst that might be able to convert sunlight and water directly into hydrogen, in a process analogous to the photosynthesis of carbohydrates by plants using sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water as the raw materials. Not only that the catalyst could act as its on storage medium for the hydrogen.

Scintillating Scientific Scintillations

Sciencebase on scintilla

Sciencebase is now on Scintilla, the science blog portal from the journal Nature. It’s worth checking out and with the help of the site’s guru Alf Eaton, I got a couple of minor technical issues quickly resolved.

One of the key features of Scintilla you will discover as you browse its myriad science blog listing is a neat little box that shows up offering you a list of similar sources. It does exactly what its name suggests and provides links to other sites with content that is likely to be closely related to the blog you are currently reading. “Those are actually calculated based on what users are subscribed to (‘people who subscribed to Sciencebase also subscribed to…’), rather than content,” Alf told me.

So, what do you get while reading Sciencebase on Scintilla? Well, at the time of writing, there were several blogs already listed in the Sciencebase links section, but to save you the trouble of searching, I’ve listed them here:

  • Nobel Intent
  • Pimm – Partial immortalization
  • The Sceptical Chymist
  • Omics! Omics!
  • Mining Drug Space
  • The Biotech Weblog
  • Kevin, M.D. – Medical Weblog
  • RealClimate
  • The Science Creative Quarterly
  • Public Rambling

I could have linked directly to the blogs, but then you wouldn’t get Scintilla’s neat little chart showing how often each site is updated, nor would you get access to the list of sites that are in turn related to each of these. Scintilla also provides the average wordcount for a site’s posts as well as a widget that shows Google PR, Alexa rank, Yahoo links to the site, and the blog’s backlinks according to Technorati. Such data is interesting, but usually only to the blogger themselves.

For instance, Sciencebase has a Google pagerank of 7 and has almost 2000 technorati backlinks, for what that’s worth. Also, I’ve posted 205 times since February 3, 2007 with an average of 343 words per post. See…I told you it would only be interesting to the blogger in question.

I’ve not checked to see just how closely related to Sciencebase these other blogs are, but I am sure there is definite topic overlap, given the diversity of subject matter I try to cover here and have attempted to justify in a recent post on critical acclaim.

Hot Milk and Global Warming

Cow's milk - How fresh do you want it?

The most ludicrous media storm blew up in the UK this week over alleged plans that the government was supposedly to force us to use ultra heat treated, so-called long-life, milk in our tea and on our breakfast cereal rather than the nice fresh pasteurised product we have been used to for decades. Wayne Smallman on the blah blah! technology news site has a detailed analysis of the situation. He quotes from a news story on the subject in which it is claimed that “Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have made a serious proposal that consumers switch to UHT”.

That’s fair enough officials probably have put forward such a serious proposal. It will have been one of dozens being mooted at any one time within government. Some proposals are literally insane, others will be quietly assimilated into future discussions, and some of them may even reach a minister’s inbox for parliamentary debate. Occasionally, though these kinds of “proposals” escape into the wild where they evolve into the kind of crazed scaremongering story we are used to in the British media. More often than not such discussions are the result of a think-tank type discussion in which a group of intelligent people come up with some “what if” questions and then take the various possible answers to their logical extreme conclusion.

These kinds of extrapolations are never really meant to see the light of day, there may be a nugget or a grain of policy hidden within that will ultimately emerge in a new law, but if the media gets wind of such “what ifs” mid-flow, it seems that they can quickly become the biggest scandal of the week.

It’s ludicrous that getting us to switch to UHT would save energy anyway, UHT is produced, as the name would suggest, by heating it well above the usual pasteurisation temperature and packing it in a hermetically sealed container. The energy cost and carbon footprint of producing UHT, I wager, far outweighs that of refrigerating fresh milk. Moreover, a carton of UHT, once opened, will require subsequent refrigeration, I believe.

There are two other thoughts that occurred to me while warming the teapot just now. Surely, there are other far more wasteful targets for such proposals. Why for instance, do we need to refrigerate containers of carbonated drinks for extended periods. No life form on earth could survive within a cola can with all that acid, sugar and lack of oxygen, surely?

More seriously, though, the UK has obligations in the light of potential climate change to reduce its national carbon footprint. Fair enough, we should all play our part, but currently, I think the UK’s carbon output amounts to a few fractional percentage points of global output. How much of a fraction of a fraction is the switch from fresh milk to UHT going to make when we’re walking on carbon tiptoes as it is? Such a proposal looks especially silly when you consider rapidly developing nations are laying new roads at a rate of dozens of kilometres a week and revving vehicles with which to fill them and at the same time firing up power stations that run on fossil fuels.

As to actually forcing us to drink UHT rather than fresh milk. Perish the thought, it makes a nice cup of tea into a punishment and turns even the tastiest of breakfast cereals into an early morning nightmare of distaste.