By Bob King
The Public Broadcasting Service's series from best-selling author Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now, centers around six innovations that changed our world, but are completely taken for granted today.
For example, Gutenberg's invention of the printing press not only revolutionized the way information was communicated, it sparked a revolution in glass. In order to read the printed word, people needed eyeglasses.
Better lenses led to better telescopes, which revolutionized our knowledge of space, and better microscopes, which transformed our understanding of the building blocks of life. Along the way, investigations into glass led to the discovery of fiberglass, then fiber-optic cable, which is vital for use of the Internet.
What the series illustrates is that innovations meant to solve a specific problem, once widely circulated, create a chain reaction that triggers other changes impossible to predict. While lone inventors have always existed, most often it is the sharing of ideas and observations that lead to the great discoveries.
Most typically, these environments exist in and among universities. As Johnson explains, these networks of open-source, or academic environments, have been responsible for the most important inventions of our time, from penicillin to computers to Google.
The University of Kentucky's Board of Trustees just adopted a statement of principles that directs President Eli Capilouto to focus on the "essential nature and value of all scholarly and creative activity" by recruiting and retaining world-class scholars and research teams, by strengthening the commitment to interdisciplinary exploration and developing critical infrastructure.
At the University of Louisville, President James Ramsey and his team are leading innovations in artificial hearts, as well as research in spinal-cord rejuvenation and renewable energy. Our universities are creating environments for collaboration, solving great problems and publishing those solutions.
Kentucky's historic commitment to research, however, is at some risk. But if we want a competitive, innovative economy we need to continue to invest in programs like Bucks for Brains, and to support the commercialization of research which will lead to the creation of knowledge economy jobs in the agriculture, energy, technology, health, advanced manufacturing and business sectors. Continuing to invest in research and innovation is critical to our state's economic future.
We all need to encourage and support the research that leads to the innovations that take us from reading glasses to the Internet — and from waiting for the next big idea to creating the next big idea. Our public universities are the best hope for the discovery of those innovations.