05/16/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

Why Science and Innovation Can Be Diametrically Opposed

Working in research & development can be considered the epitome of "fun work". The concept is to present an idea to a bunch of R&D engineers, with the challenge of "you guys/gals make it work". This takes creativity, intuitiveness, an understanding of end user needs, some physics, materials properties and fluid dynamics. But most of all it requires a healthy dose of innovation - the buzz word that makes people think of products like iPhones, wireless mice and electric cars.
Yet, strangely enough, the act of combining innovation (and all that comes with it) with pure science is not only counter-intuitive to scientists, but in many cases painfully frustrating to them. Why? Because scientists who work in pure science, see innovation as little more than an annoying distraction from "real" development.

People consider research & development as being very technical and scientific. The term "mad scientist" conjures images of someone with a white smock in a laboratory, tinkering with new inventions. But the reality of the typical R&D person is that they tend to be less scientific and more creative in nature. Yes, real R&D people are more inventors than scientists. It's all in the way you look at how science and innovation are leveraged.

Someone like Edison understood the science behind light bulbs. He didn't actually invent the light bulb, but in fact invented a practical way of making a long lasting light bulb. In his world, it wasn't enough to simply understand the theory -- he had to test iteration after iteration until he came upon something that worked. It was the act of iterating that leveraged innovation and creativity. The science was there mainly to support theory. Edison's lever was innovation.

And then we have Einstein. The person that everyone thinks of when they think "scientist". Einstein was your typical theorist, leveraging science in it's most basic forms; calculations, formulas and theorems. Sure, some of his theories weren't perfect, but Einstein had a knack for communicating, and in some ways translating science to the rest of us normal folks. Einstein's lever was science.

Scientists will tell you that iteration and innovation are mere "luck of the draw" activities, which waste time and have no business in the world of research. They set their foundations on theory and direct relevance. But their Achilles heal is Analysis-Paralysis -- the act of focusing so much on the theoretical, that real world examples and results become non-obvious. Having dealt with my share of PhDs, I can tell you that the effort is maddening.

Science in and of itself is cool stuff. Scientific theories drive many of today's technological advances. But the fatal flaw is that science refuses to recognize good old empirical testing and experimentation. Innovation is also cool, in that it represents every effort that anyone has ever made to try something and "see what happens". Innovation is reaching into a black box to find out what's inside, while science is analyzing how the black box evolved in the first place. Where innovation is the forest, science is each individual tree, evaluated and analyzed ad-nauseum.

Science and innovation should work hand in hand, not at opposite ends of the lab. More often than not, they are at odds with each other, which is both sad and frustrating. The ideal R&D situation is one where people are allowed to use science to innovate. Allowing theory to help generate ideas makes for a more robust experiment and a more solid solution.

Because when done correctly, innovation is never a distraction...