Science as a Map in Technological Search
34 Pages Posted: 1 Jan 2001
Date Written: September 12, 2000
Although received wisdom suggests that scientific research increases the rate of technological advance, little research considers why and how this acceleration occurs. By treating invention as a process of recombining interdependent technological components, we gain traction on this issue. Inventors searching these combinatoric spaces face a "complexity catastrophe" that limits the usefulness of their efforts when they attempt to combine multiple interdependent components (Fleming and Sorenson, 2000). Scientific knowledge allows inventors to overcome the difficulties inherent in searching these spaces by improving their understanding of these interactions, essentially providing them with a map of the technological landscape. Thus, inventors can more effectively take advantage of the useful synergies between technological components, while avoiding many of the deleterious interactions. Our empirical analyses of patent citations support this model. Inventions that arise without the understanding provided by scientific research decline precipitously in usefulness as they combine increasingly interdependent components. Meanwhile, inventions that draw from previous scientific research do not exhibit this complexity catastrophe; their usefulness actually increases as the degree of interdependence rises. Scientific understanding also appears to alleviate much of the uncertainty associated with combining increasingly interdependent components.
Keywords: basic science, recombinant search, technology management, complexity
JEL Classification: O31, O33, O38
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation