From Francis Bacon to Bob Langer

My colleague Steve Prokesch had an excellent profile of Bob Langer in the March-April issue of HBR. Langer runs Langer Labs at MIT, which Steve describes as “one of the most productive research facilities in the world.” Steve summarizes Langer’s recipe for success in a paragraph:

He has a five-pronged approach to accelerating the pace of discoveries and ensuring that they make it out of academia and into the real world as products. It includes a focus on high-impact ideas, a process for crossing the proverbial “valley of death” between research and commercial development, methods for facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration, ways to make the constant turnover of researchers and the limited duration of project funding a plus, and a leadership style that balances freedom and support.

It’s the DARPA formula, about which more here.

Langer’s success is extreme, and not every academic aspires to do work that is socially beneficial. Still, it’s notable how uncontroversial much of that formula is. Who wouldn’t want academia to tackle pressing real-world problems?

However, that ideal — that the fruits of academic inquiry actually be applied to create a better future — may explain quite a lot about how the world became more prosperous, according to economic historian Joel Mokyr. In A Culture of Growth, he reminds readers that Francis Bacon’s contribution to science was not just to make the case for data and experimentation:

Bacon’s work reinforced the trend in the West to build bridges between the realm of natural philosophy and that of the artisan and farmer. These bridges are critical to technological progress… One of the most remarkable trends in the cultural development of European intellectuals after 1500 was the slowly ripening notion that ‘intellectuals should involve themselves in practical matters traditionally considered beneath them’ and that their priorities ‘should take artisans newly seriously.’

From our current vantage, Langer is most notable for his particular approach, and his success in commercializing his science. But while the details of how his work gets diffused are interesting, from the broad sweep of history what’s notable is that he and his colleagues seek to make that happen at all.