fbpx Venkatesh Narayanamurti’s “Cycles of Invention and Discovery: Rethinking the Endless Frontier” | Harvard Kennedy School
About Authors

Venkatesh (Venky) Narayanamurti is the Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy, Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Physics, Emeritus at Harvard. From 2009 to 2015 he was Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy and Professor of Physics at Harvard and concurrently served as Director of the Science,Technology and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs. He was formerly the John L. Armstrong Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Dean of Physical Sciences at Harvard. Previously he served as the Richard A. Auhll Professor and Dean of Engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Prior to that he was Vice President of Research at Sandia National Laboratories and Director of Solid State Electronics Research at Bell Labs.

He obtained his Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell University and has an Honorary Doctorate from Tohoku University. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the IEEE, and the Indian Academy of Sciences. He has served on numerous advisory boards of the federal government, research universities, National Laboratories and industry. From 2011 to 2015 he served as the Foreign Secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. He currently serves on the Board of Directors and the Academic Council of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He is the author of more than 240 scientific papers in different areas of condensed matter and applied physics and the author of two books. He has written extensively and lectures widely on solid state, energy technologies, computer, and communication technologies, and on the management of science, technology and public policy.

Toluwalogo Odumosu is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society and Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia.

Book Description

Separating science into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ categories limits research and hinders policy. Narayanamurti and Odumosu explain the false distinction and provide a blueprint for change in U.S. science and technology.

Cycles of Invention and Discovery: Rethinking the Endless Frontier offers an in-depth look at the real-world practice of science and engineering. It shows how the standard categories of “basic” and “applied” have become a hindrance to the organization of the U.S. science and technology enterprise. Tracing the history of these problematic categories, Venkatesh Narayanamurti and Toluwalogo Odumosu document how historical views of policy makers and scientists have led to the construction of science as a pure ideal on the one hand and of engineering as a practical (and inherently less prestigious) activity on the other. Even today, this erroneous but still widespread distinction forces these two endeavors into separate silos, misdirects billions of dollars, and thwarts progress in science and engineering research.

The authors contrast this outmoded perspective with the lived experiences of researchers at major research laboratories. Using such Nobel Prize–winning examples as magnetic resonance imaging, the transistor, and the laser, they explore the daily micro-practices of research, showing how distinctions between the search for knowledge and creative problem solving break down when one pays attention to the ways in which pathbreaking research actually happens. By studying key contemporary research institutions, the authors highlight the importance of integrated research practices, contrasting these with models of research in the classic but still-influential report Science the Endless Frontier. Narayanamurti and Odumosu’s new model of the research ecosystem underscores that discovery and invention are often two sides of the same coin that moves innovation forward.


“The authors make a substantial contribution to both research policy as practiced by our federal government and the operations of research laboratories in many institutions in our country. This book should be required reading for government officials who fund research and to all who lead large research efforts.” —Thomas E. Everhart, California Institute of Technology

“Anyone interested in technology and innovation will want to learn the three lessons of Cycles of Invention and Discovery. First, the distinction between basic and applied research is false. Second, there is harmony not dissonance in making the transition from new ideas to practical application. Third, the advance of knowledge has entirely blurred the distinction between science and engineering. Only an individual with Venky Narayanamurti’s unique career could explain these matters in such captivating detail.” —John M. Deutch, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“In this convincingly argued book, Narayanamurti and Odumosu—one of them with decades of experience in research management and the other with a deep understanding of science and technology studies—explain why the false distinction between basic and applied science has led to profoundly wasteful policy decisions. Their insights also lead to excellent, practical suggestions for change. Cycles of Invention and Discovery is a must-read for research managers, science policymakers, and everyone concerned with the future of innovation.” —Ruth Schwartz Cowan, author of A Social History of American Technology

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Venkatesh Narayanamurti:

Hi, I'm Venkatesh Narayanamurti. I'm a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Today I want to talk to you briefly about a book which has just been released by Harvard University Press. It is called Cycles of Invention and Discovery, and I have coauthored this with a colleague of mine, Toluwalogo Odumosu, who has been working for the last several years and is currently on the faculty at University of Virginia.

I come from the hard sciences and engineering and also experience in managing research institutions, while Tolo comes significantly from the social science side, having made a career of the last several years on understanding the study of science and technology. So we've sort of combined our different backgrounds here to actually address issues of science and technology policy.

As probably most of you know, technology innovation has driven economic development for long period of time. In the United States, a key event at the same time was the role of technology in national defense, and after WWII, the US began to invest significantly in science and technology, and based on the treatise written by Vannevar Bush, who was President Roosevelt's science advisor, which was titled Science, the Endless Frontier. And in that model, people separated so-called basic and applied research, and said science is about understanding, and actually engineering and technology arise through the work of science.

That's a very simplistic model, and in our own studies we have found that often the linearity of going from science to engineering to technology is often reversed. In fact, if you look back at the industrial revolution, James Watt invented the steam engine long before the laws of thermodynamics was known. And in this book we highlight the cases of actually, especially information and communication technologies which arose out of the great industrial laboratories like Bell Labs and at Xerox Park and IBM, which show that actually this is a false dichotomy, [inaudible 00:02:17] applied research. Sometimes invention fosters science, and sometimes science fosters invention, and you need to actually have a holistic view and where these are not in dissonance and a reason to bring science and engineering seamlessly together.

So this book actually not only looks at the past history, but actually looks at the workings of current institutions, and especially the national laboratories and the way federal policy has been structured. Even though social scientists have known about this two way back and forth, the policy makers still often believe in sort of separating so-called basic and applied research, in my view, and in our view a serious detriment to the progress of both science and technology. And in fact if you look, the big challenges facing society in energy and environment, you require an attitude which actually bridges these different disciplines to make new batteries, new solar cells, et cetera, where you automatically combine technology with science.

And there are now some institutions which actually are adopting this kind of model for human health at Geneva Research Campus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I had worked for a few years where we really blurred this distinction between basic and applied in science and engineering. So the hope is that policymakers will embrace this kind of view and not artificially separate science and engineering, and at the same time, those who run R and D institutions, will take some of the lessons learned from the great industrial laboratories where you basically combined purpose with science.

Thank you.