Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Clinical Innovations - Innovation Knows No National Boundaries

Quote of the Week

The quotation that follows is appropriate in light of an article in the April 11 JAMA on the work of a Brazilian-US team of researchers who report from the University of St. Paulo that they succeeded in making 14 Type 1 Juvenile Diabetics insulin-free for varying time periods (”Autologous Nonmyeloblative Hemopoetic Stem Cell Transplantation in Newly Diagnosed Type I Diabetics,” volume 207, pages 1568-1576). In an accompanying editorial, Jay Skyler, MD, of the Diabetic Research Institute of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, supported partly by an NIH grant, said the study showed great promise, “Cellular Therapy for Type I Diabetes, Has the Time Come?” The study shows that innovation knows no national boundaries and cooperation between researchers from different nations bears fruit.

“Stereotypes about national origin are the dirty secret of technology communities, like this: The Chinese do not invent anything; they only copy. Italians design beautiful shoes, but who ever heard of a Tuscan computer programmer? Russians dominate chess, yet cannot seem to engineer a children’s toy. Germans excel when they control all variables — of a high-performance automobile. The French routinely lead in technologies that require large government subsidies. The Japanese so yearn for acceptance that individuals won’t promote a new idea without the approval of their peers.

If I have offended anyone, I will not apologize. I am recycling crass stereotypes about national traits in the service of a better understanding of how innovation works.

Talk of national identity rarely comes up in public, but privately many people — from academia to venture capital firms — take for granted that the contours of a career in technology are often shaped by the national origin of the technologist.

Comprehending innovation through the prism of national identity has its risks. In the 1970s, many people dismissed the Japanese as mere imitators and failed to see how the knowledge gained from copying would lead to path-breaking technologies. The success of Toyota, Sony and Japan’s vibrant animation industry provide cautionary tales for those who might dismiss entire nationalities as copycats or only as consumers of advanced innovations.

Nations can and do change, sometimes by smart planning, sometimes by serendipity. Finland, home to the mobile phone powerhouse Nokia, was an agricultural country 50 years ago. So was Ireland, now home to thriving clusters in electronics and pharmaceuticals. Ireland’s investment recruitment agency is now crowing about the virtues of “the Irish mind” in a series of print ads. The most popular ad, using a drawing of the Irish rock star Bono, declares: “The Irish. Creative. Imaginative. And flexible. Agile minds with a unique capacity to innovate, without being directed.”
Friends of Israel’s top engineering school, Technion, are paying for a similar series of ads, which appear periodically on the Op-Ed page of this newspaper. “The brainpower of its people” is “Israel’s only natural resource,” one ad declares.
There is little debate, however, that small countries are freer these days than large ones to boast about the supposed talents of their people. That is partly because larger countries can inspire fear or may have a history of invading others. Irish chauvinism seems benign, yet some people may regard praising the genius of “the German mind,” for instance, as objectionable, given the history of German aggression in World War II.

While migration and the flow of knowledge across borders have led to a flattening of the world, different technological strengths remain associated with different nations. So nations bent on becoming more innovative in other fields must confront their own collective strengths — and weaknesses. Just as technologists invent great products, countries invent, and reinvent, people.”

G. Pascal Zachary, “Creativity, Innovation and the Cultural Parade,” New York Times, April 15, 2007, G. Pascal Zachary teaches journalism at Stanford and writes about technology and economic development.

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