We All Have a Role to Play in Ethical Innovation

By Ron Szalkowski

Photo: iStock

The defense industry should be on the lookout for the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially since it’s entirely possible for companies to trick themselves into being the wolf.

Boundless access to information and technology in the digital age has ushered in an unforeseen ability to develop extraordinarily advanced and potentially lucrative technologies from the comfort of a garage.

Weekend hackathons can help clear technological hurdles and additive manufacturing allows products to be built that simply weren’t possible even a few years ago. The flip side of the new era is that there are more product pitches and performance claims to sort through than ever before.

Decision-makers and executives must pause before embracing claims that could unknowingly undercut the efforts of thousands of researchers who operate with integrity and ultimately put brave individuals such as soldiers, law enforcement officers and emergency response personnel at risk.

When it comes to navigating it all, be it in driving developments within your own organization or evaluating external technologies, we can look to the advice of renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

Feynman is known for a lifetime of scientific pursuits that range from work on the Manhattan Project to winning the Nobel prize for his work in developing quantum electrodynamics. His work was also paramount in investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster and, in doing so, revealing a disconnect between NASA engineers and executives.

His example, though grounded in basic scientific research, also stands at the intersection of engineering, marketing and business practices.

When Feynman gave the 1974 commencement address at Caltech, he talked about “science, pseudoscience and learning how to not fool yourself.”

The notion of “not fooling yourself” is trickier than it seems in a space of innovation and the most cutting edge technologies. Buzz around a hot development can bring about proposed solutions that range from novel-yet-unproven to blatantly misleading. The ideation phase should be kept unbounded, but when it moves from the whiteboard to launching and marketing products, care must be taken.

A timely example is the growing awareness of traumatic brain injury and specifically mild TBI or concussion. The consumer industry is littered with failed startups that pushed products onto concerned parents claiming abilities to assess or prevent concussions. Even if they had the best intentions, it seems as if they fooled themselves into thinking they had a solution when, in reality, they were selling a false sense of security. This, of course, isn’t limited to concussion mitigating products, an example being the recent implosion of Theranos, a health tech company where fraudulent practices were adopted because the founder so believed in the organization that it was simply considered a means to an end.

The risk, of course, is that eventually the truth comes out. A solution haphazardly sold to millions may not deliver the benefits it claimed. At that point, reputations can be seriously damaged. It may even expose companies to legal liability.

TBI concerns are critically important to the military, and further complicated by blast-induced brain injury. When a blast occurs, a person can be subjected to a variety of threats from the primary shockwave to secondary fragmentation or tertiary impacts. The primary shockwave has been shown in animal models to cause brain injury, even in isolation from the secondary and tertiary events. There has been a large push to develop protective technologies to mitigate it.

To date, however, there is no standard test method to evaluate whether a combat helmet is effective at reducing such injuries. This is partially due to the lack of an established injury threshold and difficulty in evaluating the brain’s response during such an event.

A number of traditional products are grounded in standardized requirements, including bicycle, football and hockey helmets. While military products must meet the required mil specs and go through proper procurement channels, there is still flexibility in going beyond the bare minimum requirements and pushing to make equipment lighter, faster and more protective.

It may be tempting to claim anecdotal or hypothetical benefits of a particular product. But Feynman highlighted the need for integrity beyond merely “not lying” and instead bending over backwards to show theoretical holes.

There’s a universal benefit in taking the utterly honest approach. This goes beyond simply avoiding misleading claims and potential fallout. Being a positive factor and showing your full understanding of a subject actively builds trust and strengthens relationships.

Embracing hasty or incorrect conclusions from biased experimentation can have compounding consequences down the line.

As Feynman himself would say, “Reality must take precedence over public relations.”

Ron Szalkowski is the director of product development and research collaboration for Team Wendy, a family-owned company that provides head protection systems, and the industry lead of the Office of Naval Research’s PANTHER program to develop solutions for traumatic brain injury. Information about the program can be found at

Topics: Ethics Corner

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