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Surveying the responses
Mick Hume
editor-at-large, spiked

‘What’s the Greatest Innovation?’ is a survey of key thinkers in science, technology and medicine, conducted by spiked in collaboration with the research-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Each contributor was asked to identify what they see as the greatest innovation in their field. More than a hundred experts and authorities have responded already, including half-a-dozen Nobel laureates.

The survey will roll through May and June, and the discussion will go live at an event in central London on Wednesday 6 June - book tickets here.

Spiked decided to conduct this survey to highlight some of the many gains of human ingenuity, and to try to put the current discussion of innovation into some sort of historical context. Innovation is a buzzword of our age, repeated like a mantra by governments, authorities and lobby groups of all persuasions. After all, who but the most dyed-in-the-wool reactionary could be against innovation?

Yet it is surely worth asking how innovative an age ours truly is. Of course there is great work being done and discoveries being made in laboratories and universities around the world. But at a wider cultural level, there is also a conservative, precautionary, anti-experimental climate abroad, a better-safe-than-sorry spirit of the age that spreads from the top down and tends to militate against the encouragement of bold breakthroughs or the fulfilment of their full potential. How do today’s innovations compare to the discoveries of the past, recent or otherwise?

Asking our experts to name the greatest innovation in their field will not answer such questions. But it can provide some ammunition for this discussion, by suggesting which innovations most influence those working or thinking today in these fields, and when and where they came from.

It can also provoke some entertaining debate -  a sort of scientific equivalent of those irresolvable ‘who was the greatest boxer/footballer?’ arguments. As various contributors point out, there can be no definitive answer to the question of what is the greatest innovation. But we can learn a lot by trying and failing to arrive at one.

The first 100 or so responses to the spiked/Pfizer survey cover a fascinating range of issues and opinions.

Some respondents are keen to emphasise how the historical revolutions in scientific thinking laid the foundations for our modern technological society, citing the work of Copernicus or Newton or Darwin. Others prefer to give their vote to more recent breaks with the thinking of the past in fields ranging from medicine to mathematics.

Some go with the impact of historic innovations that have helped to shape all of our lives, such as the alphabet, the harnessing of electricity or the development of the Internet. Others focus on the axis-shifting impact of apparently obscure developments in their own field - from a new method of investigating the brain to a more accurate system of measurement.

Their choices range from the stars to the microbes; from the importance of incremental, almost unnoticed changes to the impact of some sort of ‘big bang’; from innovations that are universally recognised to those hidden away behind laboratory doors that have nevertheless contributed to transforming society and the lives of those who live in it.

Some choose ‘sexy’ looking innovations, others apologise for the apparent dullness of their arcane choices. But whatever the appearances, almost all of our respondents exude a sense of certainty about the improvement that innovations in their field are making to our world, and the potential for more of the same. The results of the survey hint at how much more could be achieved if there was a stronger cultural affirmation of the problem-solving potential of scientific experimentation and bold innovation.

‘What’s the Greatest Innovation?’ might not answer the question, but it can provide some illuminating insight both into the important developments of the recent and more distant past, and into the way those involved at the cutting edge see the issue of innovation today. There will be more to come as the survey rolls on through May and June with further top-level contributions.

In the meantime, here are just a few of the issues raised by the first tranche of respondents.

Do the Internet and the IT (information technology) revolution - cited by perhaps more contributors than anything else - have their roots in the development of lithography 200 years ago, the triode vacuum tube in 1915, or the transistor?

Is the greatest innovation in this field of communication the mobile phone, the text message, the blog, ‘openfree hypertext servers’, the hyperlink or Google? Or do we still owe it all to Marconi, the radio, moveable type or the ballpoint pen?

What should get the vote in the field of genetics? The discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick might seem a safe bet. But our respondents are also keen to highlight the many applications of recombinant DNA technology, the ability to get genes into plants and improve agricultural productivity, and to use genetic engineering to combat disease.

Which is the more important ‘final frontier’ to be conquered - the universe of space and new planets, explored by rockets and telescopes, or the new universe of the microbe that we did not know existed until the historic development of the microscope? Or has the real importance of space been as a frontier in the human mind, an area where innovations have led to an explosion in scientific and rational thought?

Come to that, which are the greatest innovations in ideas and consciousness? Free will? The recognition that physical appearances can be at odds with the underlying laws of physics? The development of social theory and the possibility of social change? The scientific method? The university ideal of uniting teaching and research? Quantum theory? Or is it the simple eraser - symbol of the importance of experimenting and making mistakes?

Which innovation should get the prize in the crucial area of medical science, where the benefits of innovation to humanity are most obvious of all? Our respondents from different corners of this field variously opt for controlled clinical trials, vaccines, x-rays, chloroform, the switch from metal to plastic, the paradigm shift in understanding cancer, the discovery of the ‘secret of life’ and many more.

And which answer ought to get the tick in the field of mathematics? Those offered here range from the Hindu Arabic numbers system, through the ‘magical looking glass’ of the Zeta function, to the rather more obscure study of Ricci flows on Riemannian structures.

Then there is the exchange of views in relation to our understanding of the magnificent human brain - which, after all, is what allows us understand and debate these concepts in the first place. For the expert minds contributing here, the greatest innovations include the electroencephalogram and innovative neuro-imaging techniques, or recent breakthroughs in understanding the right frontal lobe, the region responsible for the highest human mental functions - such as, presumably, innovation itself.

Elsewhere, readers who enjoy respondents exchanging constructive brickbats could dig out the architects and construction experts who variously opt for windows, the brick, concrete, or the elevator.

So, would you agree with those who named the discovery of nuclear fusion, or the invention of spectacle with arms, as a key moment in human history? Or perhaps it really should be the development of nitrogen fertiliser or breakthroughs in inorganic chemistry, since unless we produce enough food to eat there is little chance of innovating anything else?

It is, of course, impossible to agree on one. And we can certainly concur with those respondents who point out that the greatest innovations in their field are almost certainly yet to come. In that sense, it is a debate that can never be closed.

In the meantime, we hope that the spiked/Pfizer survey ‘What’s the Greatest Innovation?’ can help to mark some of the triumphs of human ingenuity, to inform us all about how we got to where we are now, and to open up a wider discussion about how to go forwards into the future. That would definitely be another innovation worth celebrating.