“Venky” Narayanamurti: Technology development is a public good
At the 2012 Industrial Physics Forum in Trieste, Italy, the condensed-matter physicist drew on experiences from his multifaceted career in his overarching talk on energy technology, innovation, and science policy.
April 18, 2012Published: April 18, 2012
By Jermey N. A. Matthews
Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti admits he’s still learning about public policy and its role in scientific innovation. Already, though, he’s making his mark in the science policy community. In recent years, the Harvard University condensed-matter physicist, former academic dean, and former Bell Labs technical director has pivoted from physics research to work on policy solutions that advance clean energy, telecommunications, and other technologies for “the public good,” as he emphasized in his talk on Monday, 16 April. As the director of the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Narayanamurti has published a number of policy recommendations, including some with members of the Belfer Center’s energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment (ERD3) policy project, which aims to influence the development and deployment of low-carbon energy technologies in the US; their November 2011 report, Transforming US Energy Innovation, includes an analysis of the role of renewable energy policy in the emerging countries of Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, China, and South Africa.
Narayanamurti was recently elected to serve a four-year term as the National Academy of Engineering’s foreign secretary, the NAE’s official liaison to similar international organizations. In his 16 April IPF talk, “Innovation, Science and Technology Policy, and the Public Good,” he shared some of ERD3’s findings and his professional and personal views on the historical and contemporary relationship between basic science and technology development.
Because his talk drew so many questions, he agreed to sit down with me to share more about his views on industrial physics and on capacity building in the developing world.
On the distinction between pure and applied science and on the benefits of interdisciplinary research:
There shouldn’t be a funny bias between pure and so-called applied research. Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism were inspired by the invention of the telegraph. And some people have a naive view about why the industrial labs were so effective. Bells Labs, for example, combined physics, electrical engineering, and materials science in a beautiful way. We all worked together without regard for any artificial boundaries.
On the need for developing countries to innovate and to establish institutes of technology:
For India and China, the path to becoming emerging countries has been through technology. [Former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal] Nehru did a very good thing in setting up the Indian Institutes of Technology. In China, the government and government-run businesses are heavily supporting R&D—and many of the people in those positions [of political influence] are engineers. Even look at Singapore and Taiwan. They transformed themselves by becoming technological hubs.
But developing countries should pursue technology that they need. They don’t have to pursue the same things that the United States is doing. The point is for them to build up the capacity to innovate.
On the tendency for scientists to overemphasize of the role of science and technology in capacity building:
I have to restrain myself sometimes. We scientists sometimes do overstate our point. It can’t be just science and technology. It has to be a mix. You also need political and economic stability. And societal needs play a role in influencing technology development—the internet is a very good example of that.