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Coming to Terms: Research is Not Development (But Development is Sometimes Research)
  • 02 May 2023 10:05 AM
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Coming to Terms: Research is Not Development (But Development is Sometimes Research)

By Daniel I. Newman

This series addresses terminology that is misleading or erroneous, and proffers definitions to be used as canonical. Here a distinction of “research” from “development” is offered to aid discussion during high-risk development. See www.eVTOL.news/terms for past columns.

The term “research” is often used interchangeably with the label “R&D” — partnered with “development” — as if they are always linked and well differentiated from the companion labels “S&T” for science and technology and “T&E” for test and evaluation. While there does not appear to be a single, all-encompassing definition that is embraced by all for any of the first four activities — science, technology, research and development — there are distinct differences that can be identified and should be mostly agreed upon. In general, these terms can be thought of as a continuum, from basic understanding of natural physical phenomena through the creation of specific products or services for delivery to customers or users.

This science/technology/research/development progression correlates to NASA’s Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) that characterize the maturity of a technology from “Basic principles observed and reported” at TRL 1 through “Actual system proven through successful mission operations” at TRL 9. TRLs 1–3 loosely relate to Science, TRL 3–5 to Technology, TRL 4–6 to Research and TRL 7–9 to Development. Similarly, the US government has specific categories of funding, with 6.1 and 6.2 for S&T and 6.3 and 6.4 for R&D.

Science is at the start of this sequence, generally defined as a systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe (see Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1999). In the past, science was a synonym for “knowledge” or “study,” in keeping with its Latin origin sciens meaning “knowing.”

Modern science is typically divided into natural sciences, which study the physical world; social sciences, which study individuals and societies; and the formal sciences (e.g., logic, mathematics and theoretical computer science), which study systems governed by axioms and rules. Contemporary scientific research is highly collaborative and is usually done by teams in academic and research institutions, government agencies and some companies. The understanding of a particular phenomenon provided by scientific activities sets the stage for finding ways to make it useful, as in the applied sciences (engineering and medicine) that use scientific knowledge for practical purposes (see Martin R. Fischer and Götz Fabry, “Thinking and Acting Scientifically: Indispensable Basis of Medical Education,” 2014).

From scientific understanding can come “technology,” the application of knowledge for achieving practical goals in a reproducible way, or the resulting products. The word comes from the Greek, combining tékhnē for “knowledge of how to make things” and -λογία, “study, knowledge.” In the 20th century, technology stopped being considered a distinct academic discipline and took on its current day meaning as “the systemic use of knowledge to practical ends” (Jean‐Jacques Salomon, “What is technology? The issue of its origins and definitions,” 1984). The earliest and most significant useful technologies include the stone tool in prehistoric times, the control of fire and the wheel. More recent significant communications technologies include the printing press, the telephone, the radio, and the Internet.

Research, next in this sequence, is “creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge” (The Measurement of Scientific, Technological and Innovation Activities, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2015). Derived from the Old French verb “recerchier,” meaning “to search,” it involves the collection, organization and analysis of evidence to increase understanding of a topic. John W. Creswell (Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research, 2008) stated that “research is a process of steps used to collect and analyze information to increase our understanding of a topic or issue,” consisting of posing a question, collecting data to answer the question and presenting an answer to the question.

While “research” also generically refers to the activities to advance science and technology, this discussion of “research” is limited to the activities that follow S&T. In practical terms, as a follow-on to technology, research builds a knowledge base that characterizes all of the factors and conditions required for the technology to function, to be predictable and to be made useful. This includes all the associated impacts on other features, the costs and the “-ilities” (manufacturability, durability, reliability, inspectability, repairability, survivability, etc.). The deliverable of this type of research is knowledge to support a decision whether to apply a technology. Only with knowledge of all the relevant costs, constraints and consequences associated with applying a technology, can an informed decision be made whether to apply it to a product or service. Many technologies have been proven feasible but failed to be practical (e.g., Rube Goldberg machines).

For this discussion, (product) development refers to the complete process of taking a product to market through the entire product life cycle. As used here, development includes defining, designing, building, testing, delivering and supporting the product or service, and (more recently) dispositioning it at end of life. Development may follow research. It represents a commitment to produce specific tangible deliverables, beyond knowledge. A primary distinction, then, of development from this definition of research is the existence of a customer with a specific expectation and a deadline.

To demonstrate with an example, the work done by a graduate student that delivers a basic understanding is science, and a specific relevant innovation that they discover is a technology that they may seek to patent and/or spin off as a start-up company. The start-up would perform research to determine if the technology is feasible, and to fully characterize to understand whether it is practical. And if proven both feasible and practical, then there might be a commitment to develop into a product for sale.

A gray area is when a commitment is made to develop a product, at risk, before there is sufficient knowledge whether a technology is sufficiently feasible and practical. When a product development is already underway, should effort to understand a poorly understood technology be characterized as research or as development?

A recent well-publicized example is Theranos, a corporation that secured venture and private capital to develop a compact, rapid and accurate capability to perform numerous blood tests with a single, very small blood sample. In the end the claims were proven false, and there were consequences for those found accountable.

Another example ripe for discussion is the 1980s US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the plan to “render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete” with an array of space-based X-ray lasers to detect and deflect nuclear weapons headed toward the country. The practical objection to SDI was that it was too expensive and not technologically feasible. Many scientists considered SDI overambitious, and some called it impractical, expensive and dangerous. Senator Edward Kennedy called it “reckless,” though politics always calls for hyperbole.

SDI was cancelled in 1983 after 10 years, as still “futuristic.” A 1987 study focused on the technical challenges of SDI concluded that “not a single one of the systems then under study or development was even remotely close to deployment” (Nicolaas Bloembergen, “Report to The American Physical Society of the study group on science and technology of directed energy weapons,” 1987). The effort was considered a weapons system development but should more fairly have been characterized as research.

In summary, there is a real distinction between research and development, and the use of one of the terms — or both as in R&D — should be considered and clarified.

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