A sizable fraction of the US’s gross domestic product funds research performed in academic centers, government labs and other facilities. But what kind of return are we as a society recouping on this large investment in new discoveries? Does scientific research reliably lead to usable practical advances? Not surprisingly, there are strongly opposing viewpoints on the value of basic research. For example, after World War II the founder of the National Science Foundation characterized scientific research as a valuable fund of new knowledge from which applications could be drawn. In contrast, the “ivory tower” view of academic endeavors suggests that science is an isolated activity that rarely pays off in practical application. Related is the idea that marketplace innovation rarely relies on the work of universities or government labs.
To account for direct and indirect links between basic research and related applications, Northwestern researchers looked for connections between all 4.8 million patents granted between 1976 and 2015 by the United States Patent and Trademark Office and all 32 million journal articles published since World War II, as indexed by the Web of Science database. Most patents are filed by businesses, representing potentially marketable innovations. And most research articles flow from universities and other research settings. So these measures help trace not only links from science to invention, but also the flows of knowledge from nonprofit research institutions to firms.
To find connections, the researchers created a “social network” style map, which connects patents and science papers using the citations in each. This method harnesses the fact that both papers and patents provide references to work on which they are based. They found remarkably widespread linkages between scientific research and future practical applications.