Science as a Map in Technological Search

34 Pages Posted: 1 Jan 2001

See all articles by Lee Fleming

Lee Fleming

Harvard University - Technology & Operations Management Unit

Olav Sorenson

Yale School of Management

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

Fleming, Lee and Sorenson, Olav, Science as a Map in Technological Search (September 12, 2000). Available at SSRN: or

Lee Fleming

Harvard University - Technology & Operations Management Unit ( email )

Boston, MA 02163
United States
617 495 6613 (Phone)
617 496 5265 (Fax)

Olav Sorenson (Contact Author)

Yale School of Management ( email )

135 Prospect Street
P.O. Box 208200
New Haven, CT 06520-8200
United States

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