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Technology and knowledge transfer: science and industry working together

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J.S. 2006. Technology and knowledge transfer: science and industry working together. KnowGenesis International Journal for Technical Communication 1(2):28–31.

Abstract

Science and technology are intimately related. The technology sector that drives the modern economy would never have arisen without basic scientific research, and that research is now being funded by companies seeking to gain a technological edge over their competitors. Despite this mutual dependence, technical communication has taken different paths in science and industry. Technology and knowledge transfer, the communication of research results to an audience that can implement the results, bridges these two solitudes and strongly resembles much of the work done by other technical communicators.

Introduction

Most members of the Society for Technical Communication (STC, www.stc.org) work in high technology, with a heavy concentration on computers, software, and related products. Another large portion of the membership works in the design or development of commercial products made possible by centuries of uninterrupted scientific research. Despite this heavy technological dependence in our profession, comparatively few STC members work directly in fields related to the underlying scientific research. And despite the interdependence of research focused on scientific principles (also called basic science) and research focused on the development of technology (also called applied science), scientific communicators and technical communicators work in largely independent worlds.

Most STC members publish information for the users of commercial products such as computer software, and emphasize practical, hands-on instructional material. In contrast, scientific communicators publish largely abstract information, intended primarily for the education of scientists, engineers, and other experts by expanding their knowledge of fundamental principles of how the world works; the writing usually appears in journals that present research results with little or no instruction as to what readers should do with those results. (Applied-science journals, such as those in medicine and engineering, occupy a middle ground between science and industry.) The heavy dependence of technology on this enormous reservoir of application-free facts implies that someone must link that knowledge with those who can use it to permit the creation of products that are useful to more than just scientists. Building those links has traditionally and most familiarly been called technology transfer. More recently, practitioners have begun to adopt the phrase knowledge transfer, since the goal may extend beyond the simple goal of producing technology to include broader goals such as changing attitudes and opinions or developing new cognitive and procedural skills. In this paper, I'll focus more on the traditional form of technology transfer.

Technology transfer has the goal of communicating research results to an audience that can implement this knowledge, whether to help that audience develop products or to convince them to adopt a new way of doing things. Table 1 highlights the differences between scientific research and product development, and shows how technology transfer bridges these two solitudes. The remainder of this paper explores the process in more detail and identifies potential roles for technical communicators. As Table 1 makes clear, technology transfer strongly resembles other forms of technical communication: it requires considerable understanding of the audience’s characteristics and uses that understanding to facilitate communication.

Table 1. Scientific research, product development, and the bridges created between them by technology transfer.

Scientific research

Technology transfer

Product development

Research produces wholly new knowledge.

Identification of relevant areas of technology and transfer of knowledge to workers in those areas.

Development produces an improved product or a product that was formerly impossible to develop.

Readers must be persuaded to apply the knowledge to areas other than research.

Identification of gaps in audience knowledge, prejudices, and how to fill the gaps and overcome the prejudices.

Product developers accept the new knowledge and begin applying it in their work.

New knowledge has potentially unlimited scope.

Identification of the possibilities for doing old things better or new things that were formerly impossible to do.

Developers see how to look beyond the limited scope that defines most products (e.g., a limited number of features or limited usefulness of those features).

The philosophy of science focuses on free exchange, ongoing criticism, and ongoing refinement of knowledge based on that criticism.

Reconciliation of the need to publish results freely and promote the expansion of knowledge with the need of companies to recoup their large investments in research.

Commercial products rely on proprietary, highly confidential knowledge. Applied science journals and conferences that deal with computer chip design, software engineering, pharmaceutical research, and other high-tech areas strike a delicate balance between sharing and protecting that knowledge.

Research must be replicated under a variety of conditions to confirm its validity and determine the limits to its applicability.

Identification of the limitations of research, of testing required to determine those limits, and of the most effective way to implement the research while testing continues.

Products must take advantage of new discoveries or technologies without creating more problems for their users than they solve.

Research produces knowledge, not products

Unlike most commercial endeavors, scientific research produces knowledge rather than a physical process or product. Technology transfer brings the research’s implications to the attention of someone who can transform that knowledge into a product or process. For example, Jean-Baptiste Fourier’s mathematical analysis of periodic oscillations (waves) in the early 1800s underlies all current work on digital signal processors; these chips are now being used in tools such as noise-canceling microphone–speaker combinations and in more mundane devices such as sound cards for computer. Similarly, Johann Gauss’ work on magnetism in 1832 provided the basis for magnetic measurements, which eventually permitted the development of the hard drives on which all of us now store our software and writing. Between the original research and the final product, a continuing exchange of knowledge among researchers and subsequently between researchers and engineers led to the series of breakthroughs that produced modern computers.

Readers must be persuaded to accept new knowledge

Scientific research that leads to new technology or to changes in the use of old technology fills in gaps in existing knowledge, or challenges that knowledge, and in so doing, it encounters two very human phenomena: ignorance and resistance to change. Ignorance is the easier problem to correct, since product developers have a strong economic incentive to develop superior products once they become aware of relevant new knowledge. Challenging adherence to the status quo is more difficult because it requires writers to persuade their audience of the need to challenge and overturn longstanding beliefs.

William Budd, for example, encountered strong resistance to the notion that contaminated water (rather than “bad air”) was causing the cholera epidemic that struck Bristol (England) in the mid-1860s, but his perseverance helped to control that epidemic. It also helped other researchers such as Louis Pasteur to develop the germ theory of disease, a keystone of modern medicine. Pasteur in turn exercised his considerable genius to design an 1860 experiment that demonstrated conclusively that microorganisms caused disease.

Because any knowledge that attempts to disrupt old habits faces strong obstacles, those who engage in technology transfer must understand their audience deeply. Based on this understanding, they can recognize the sources of resistance to change and choose a means of communication most likely to overcome that resistance. How could we adapt this approach to overcoming the resistance of many audiences to using new products and even to reading the documentation we produce?

Readers must understand the knowledge’s potential scope

New knowledge often seems to have unlimited scope—or a scope that doesn’t interest readers at all. Technology transfer focuses on identifying where the new knowledge is most applicable, and where it is not at all applicable. The communicator’s role is to discern possibilities for doing old things better or achieving new things that were formerly impossible, but also to identify where knowledge should not be applied. For example, the ability to measure many aspects of nature so precisely has led some scientists to believe that the ability to measure something inevitably provides new meaning. In many cases it does, but in other cases, precise measurements are meaningless and conceal more important underlying factors (Hart 2005).

Consider the practice of phrenology, which became quite popular in the early 1800s as a result of the advocacy of Franz Josef Gall and his colleagues. Phrenologists measure the shape of a person’s skull, and use these measurements to draw inferences about the shape of the person’s brain; Gall et alia claimed that this provided an objective measure of the person’s personality. Despite the absence of evidence for the efficacy of this practice, it took the experiments of Julius Hitzig in the late 1800s to disprove phrenology. Hitzig did this by revealing more relevant information: that it was not the shape of the brain that was important, but rather differences in how its various regions function.

Science emphasizes the sharing of information

Science emphasizes the free exchange of knowledge, combined with ongoing criticism and refinement of that knowledge (Hart 2006a). Conversely, industry protects most commercially valuable technologies with patents, end-user contracts (e.g., usage licenses), and rigorously enforced confidentiality (nondisclosure) agreements. This approach directly contradicts science’s long tradition of building on an ever-expanding body of knowledge made available for use by anyone. In this context, technology transfer faces the very real problem of reconciling the need to publish science freely and promote the expansion of knowledge for the common good with the need to recoup large investments in research by making the results proprietary and thus profitable. This issue has grown particularly serious now that much university research is funded by companies that expect a proprietary return on their funding. Indeed, major funding agencies such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH 2005) are now insisting that researchers who receive government funding must quickly make their research results available to the public even if industry funding was also used to produce those results.

Conferences on computer chip design, software and genetic engineering, pharmaceuticals, and other high-tech areas illustrate one solution. These gatherings strike a delicate balance between sharing and protecting knowledge. The current open-source software movement, which has produced successful products such as the Linux operating system, provides another model for how the scientific philosophy has been adopted for formerly proprietary products (computer operating systems). Although Linux is developed communally by programmers from around the world, and the resulting software is free for anyone to download, several companies sell Linux documentation, package this with the software to produce turn-key solutions, and provide technical support; the product itself is free, but the "value added" components can still be sold. The documentation produced for Linux (http://www.linux.org/docs/index.html) is a particularly intriguing example of technology transfer because of this complicated situation.

Research must be replicated

The scientific method requires that research be replicated under a variety of conditions to confirm its validity and identify the limits to its applicability. Important research results must be replicated independently by other researchers before being broadly accepted, and this bears a strong resemblance to the careful in-house alpha-testing and external beta-testing that software undergoes. The reasons for this testing strongly resemble those for scientific research: without replication, developers can’t know whether their products work and can’t predict situations that would reveal fundamental flaws in their products. Adopting new technologies must not create more problems for their users than they solve. Where potential problems are detected, they must be included in the technology transfer so that potential users of the information can make informed decisions about whether and how to use the information.

Technology transfer also involves careful identification of the limitations of research, testing to confirm those limitations, and determination of effective ways to implement the research safely while ongoing testing continues. The rigorous process that modern pharmaceuticals and surgical treatments undergo before being broadly adopted by doctors provides one of the better examples of how this works. Technical communicators, who are often more aware than scientists and product developers of the needs of the audience, clearly have a role to play in this part of technology transfer.

Conclusions

The current astounding rate of expansion of knowledge shows no signs of slowing. In consequence, so much knowledge now exists that even specialists in a field have difficulty keeping up with the state of the art. Imagine, then, how difficult it is for engineers and other product developers to keep up with new scientific developments in addition to developments in their own field, and to incorporate the new knowledge in their products. This problem creates an opportunity for technical communicators to prosper, since it takes advantage of several of our abilities:

Moreover, even though the development of new products or processes may be the primary goal of industry, technical communicators must recognize that focusing solely on this aspect of technology transfer may lead them to miss important additional opportunities for knowledge transfer. Neither science nor technology is inherently ethically neutral, and it many cases it can be more important to understand the implications of science and technology for those who will use it or be affected by it than it is to produce the products (Hart 2006b). As intermediaries between the developers and users of knowledge, we have a unique opportunity to see more of the picture than either the scientists or the technologists, and the unique responsibility of communicating any implications to both groups.

Literature cited

Hart, G. 2005. Editorial:  Quantifying the unquantifiable. the Exchange 12(4):2, 6.

Hart, G. 2006a. Editorial:  In theory... the Exchange 13(1):2, 8–10.

Hart, G. 2006b. Editorial:  The ethics of experimentation. the Exchange 13(2):2, 5–7.

NIH. 2005. NIH calls on scientists to speed public release of research publications. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. NIH News, 3 Februrary 2005. <http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/feb2005/od-03.htm> Consulted 2 August 2006.


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