Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Innovation Grinch

By Keith McDowell

Tis the season of good tidings and great joy as Americans take time to enjoy the holidays and ignore the doom and gloom of economic pundits, the gyrations and tepid growth of their 401-k accounts, the wacky and zany Republican presidential selection process, and our dysfunctional Congress that continues to kick someone’s can down the road. And whose can is it that they are kicking? Could it be the middle class and the 99%? Hmm! I must have missed the latest software release of the “kick the can” game.

And with every yuletide season, we have the inevitable villain – the grinch who steals Christmas. This year’s villain comes gift-wrapped and tied with a bow, just in time to put under the Christmas tree. What was stolen? The payroll tax cut extension! Who stole it? Congress! Yes, once again, Congress puts a lump of coal in our Christmas stocking and removes over $1000 in disposable money per wage earner for nearly 160 million Americans. But wait! Maybe there is still time to save Christmas. We’ll skip a vote in the House of Representatives and send the issue to a conference committee. That should get the job done. (I would attach an LOL at this point, but I’m still not completely sure what that acronym stands for.)

Newt Gingrich has it almost right, but he chose the wrong branch of government. Instead of federal judges and members of the Supreme Court, we should send out the federal marshals to arrest the members of Congress and put them in stocks along the federal mall for common citizens to walk past and express their displeasure. A brand on their foreheads would be even better! The original framers of the Constitution would certainly applaud and understand such old-fashioned treatment knowing full well that it was unconstitutional.

But is such scorn of our Congress and its members justified? Even worse, should we replace the Christmas Grinch with an Innovation Grinch?  Let’s revisit three key issues of interest to the innovation community to determine the need for this new creature: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) commonly known as the stimulus bill, the 2012 Omnibus bill, and the potential for sequestration of federal funding.

According to the ARRA website, the stimulus bill has paid out $734.4 billion with $218.6 billion going to Contracts, Grants & Loans, of which $11.3 billion was expended on R&D/Science. An explicit breakdown by federal agency shows that the National Science Foundation, for example, reported $1.41 billion as being paid out. The website contains a map where the total number of stimulus research grants and related stimulus funding per state can be accessed for review. No matter the specific amounts or the distribution around the United States, suffice it to say that billions of one-time stimulus dollars have been and are being spent to stimulate research and development for the purpose of further priming the American innovation engine. But they are one-time dollars and therein lies the problem. Soon, if not already, universities will cut graduate student support, cut the number of postdoctoral fellows, and reduce the R&D staff by a very significant amount. That can’t be good for the economy or for innovation. Will the funds be made up through the normal appropriation process?

Two and a half months late and a few dollars short, Congress finally passed the 2012 Omnibus bill for this fiscal year’s federal budget. And just how many dollars short is it? While the NSF budget is up 3% and the Department of Energy E-ARPA program grows by 2.5%, the R&D budget for the Department of Defense was cut by $2.5 billion and the science and technology directorate of the Department of Homeland Security was cut by $140 million. All in all, the 2012 federal budget is not good news for innovation or for sustaining any momentum generated by ARRA stimulus funding.

How about future prospects for federal support of R&D and the innovation pipeline? A “Membership Advisory” email to me from the Director of Public Affairs at the American Physical Society tells the story and I quote:

Potential funding cuts will be triggered a year from now in the form of automatic across-the-board reductions – technically called sequestrations – mandated by the 2011 amendments to the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 1985. According to the amended BCA, the recent failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to come to an agreement on a debt reduction plan, will initiate $1.2 trillion in sequestrations over nine years, beginning with Fiscal Year 2013. The effect on science funding is not yet known, since the sequestrations will apply to appropriations bills that have yet to be written.

And it’s not just a simple accounting of dollars and cents that matters! Congress seems bent on the destruction of the United States Postal Service and the removal of mail service on the last mile. What happened to the justification for rural electrification and even the Internet on the last mile as a competitive advantage? Doesn’t the same argument hold for the mail? Furthermore, how does blaming the messengers – civil engineers – help overcome the impending collapse of America’s civil infrastructure? And why continue to support the barrier of export control regulations as an old-fashioned Chinese wall when history teaches that fixed fortifications never keep the enemy out, especially against the modern onslaught of Chinese and Russian hackers?

It’s a game of uncertainty practiced for political and ideological reasons. It’s a rhetorical flourish designed to achieve a besting of one’s opponents. And it’s a dangerous and cynical exercise bereft of factual content sure to dampen innovation and further stall the American economy.

Yes, Virginia, there is an Innovation Grinch! And his name is Congress.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

NSF Walks the Innovation Talk

By Keith McDowell

On 20 July 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong announced to an enthralled America:
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” His pronouncement of humankind conquering the moon in many ways ended the Space Race and brought about an era of space exploration and research unparalleled in history, although recent budget cuts to NASA and confused vacillations in America’s strategic plan for space potentially signal an end to our leadership.

Today, America faces the Innovation Race – the race to out-innovate our global competitors and continue our dominance in the global marketplace in the face of emerging nations and economies. While many lament the putative decline in America’s competitive advantage, especially as regards the condition of our innovation ecosystem, the National Science Foundation (NSF) potentially has taken “one small step” that will result in “one giant leap” for innovation in America. While others talk the talk, NSF has begun to walk the walk on innovation.

Responding to our national innovation angst and based on input from many sources including the Request-For-Information call from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NSF recently reconfigured its “Partnerships for Innovation” program into a more nuanced umbrella program containing two components: Building Innovation Capacity (BIC) and Accelerating Innovation Research (AIR). The goal is to build innovation capacity through early support of the partnering of academic institutions with the small business sector and to accelerate innovation research by supporting existing NSF grantees that collaborate with third parties in order to move innovations to market.

BIC is an early-stage program in the discovery to marketplace pipeline designed to “stimulate the transformation of knowledge” obtained through discovery into “market-accepted innovations” via the “re-creation of single research platform” using connectivity to small businesses with the hope that researchers will become “agile in adapting their research for use in new applications” and that the transformed knowledge will serve diverse problem spaces of interest to the business world. The game is to create self-sustaining “research platforms” or “enabling infrastructure” that builds innovation capacity. At the core of BIC is a knowledge-enhancing-partnership (KEP) group that serves as a forum to churn ideas from all elements of the discovery-to-marketplace pipeline. Recognizing the all important need to manage intellectual property claims and rights, NSF requires an upfront Cooperative Research Agreement (CRA) by participants as part of any award.

AIR is a later-stage program designed to “spur the translation to transfer of fundamental research discoveries towards economic and/or societal impact” through commercialization into the marketplace while developing the entrepreneurial culture and strengthening America’s innovation ecosystem. The game is to bring together existing NSF-funded research alliances and expand connectivity to a broader community including business, venture capital, and other such entities. In many ways it embodies the “community of innovation” concept espoused by the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) and others while playing to the need to solve societal grand challenges and build regional innovation ecosystems.

All in all, it’s a worthy first step for NSF and one that I support, although one needs graphics and pictures, such as the one displayed in our byline, to sort through the complexities of the new programs. And therein resides the story of these new programs. Are they so laden with innovation jargon and government-speak that no one knows what the other person is talking about? What the heck is a “research platform” for goodness sake? Is it akin in spirit to the “weapons platform” lingo of the Department of Defense?

And more fundamental is the underlying theory of an innovation or commercialization ecosystem that underpins the call for proposals under these new programs. Exactly what are the feds at NSF thinking? What are their assumptions and the premises upon which they have structured their programs? A working guidebook to their theories and conceptual framework would be a useful addition and permit enlightened debate. America needs that debate.

But to be fair to the professionals at NSF, their proposal announcement does contain some glimpses into their underlying thinking. For example, recognizing that rapid product development is a reality, especially for the information technology sector, they note that discovery must be closely coupled to economic development and hence the creation of BIC. Their assumption (unstated) in some measure is that more connectivity and communication across the commercialization pipeline equals more innovation and more startup companies. Although it would appear to be self-evident as an assumption, it needs to be tested.

And then there is the assumption that more connectivity equals more collaboration. But exactly how do people connect and how do they communicate? I suppose such details are the essence of the “research platform” and the expanded structure of the research alliances.

But let’s be clear! These new NSF programs are a wonderful experiment to test and develop the efficacy of such assumptions. They are a fertile ground to posit, experiment, and understand one’s ideas of the functioning of an advanced American innovation ecosystem and to determine what really works in the early stages. And just how likely is it that NSF will succeed?

The current Request for Proposal states that 22 awards will be made for a total of $15 million total in both programs. Hmm. While a big step for the usually cautious NSF, by any other measure, it’s a tepid one causing one to wonder if there is a hidden politically-correct agenda at work. It would be easy to argue that NSF doesn’t really have a legal or mandated obligation to foster innovation, especially as relates to commercialization or economic development. And who will “win” the awards from such a small pool of funding? It will be existing converged infrastructures. Folks, that’s not a prescription for testing new ideas or a means to learning something new!

And let’s be frank! The concept of “capacity building” is not new at NSF or in the federal agencies. Been there and done that! It’s called EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) – a program having a nearly thirty-year history whose purpose was and is to build research capacity at universities in states and territories that don’t receive their fair share of the federal research funding pie. It’s a rich history with many lessons learned and many successes and failures, even for the commercialization of university research. And that history should be a guide as we embark on BIC and AIR.

For example, as the former Director of the Alabama EPSCoR program, I can assure NSF that a two-year funding window for BIC and AIR grants is …, well, it’s a joke. Nothing really meaningful will be done in that period, although certainly money will be spent, advances will be made, and reports will be filed in a hurry-up manner. It takes five years! That’s a lesson learned from such programs.

But talking the talk had to end and taking a risky step had to begin. NSF has taken that step, albeit a small one. Could it be a giant leap for America in the Innovation Race? Will concept and talk become reality? It’s a gamble that must be undertaken. I applaud NSF for taking on the challenge.

The graphical image on the header of this article was obtained from slide 8 of an NSF Powerpoint presentation available on the Internet.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Regulation is a Four-Letter Word!

By Keith McDowell

Are you one of those people who insist on driving over the posted speed limit, no matter the circumstances? How do you feel about regulations prohibiting cell-phone use while driving – not to mention the obnoxious restaurant patron blathering away in a loud voice next to you about the inconsequential trivia of his life? And then we have Rick Perry and the Republican presidential candidates, all “fed up” and bothered by “regulations” they claim restrict the growth of business and the formation of startup companies. Has the American enterprise system indeed become so constipated by regulations that innovation is squelched and only a dose of Ex-Lax or “deregulation” will cure the problem?  Since when did “regulation” become a four-letter word!

And how about our universities, the ultimate innovation engines of America? Have they also become choked by rules and regulations? A simple, but true story from my own experience as a vice president for research at The University of Alabama reveals the truth. Believe me, even Snoopy in his effort to write the ultimate heroic novel couldn’t make this stuff up any better!

It was a Wednesday morning at the president’s staff meeting before the Alabama homecoming football game when the announcement was made that a fraternity planned to host several elephants as part of their weekend activities. Of course, elephants are the Alabama mascot. My heart stopped! Do we have a protocol I whispered? “No! What’s a protocol,” was the reply. I panicked and announced we had to have an IACUC-approved protocol for the display of animals. “Make it happen” became the order of the day.

With the help of Dr. Marianne Woods, we contacted Washington to determine the best protocol for elephants knowing full well that PETA had launched a national effort to protest the treatment of confined elephants. No one in Washington had a clue as to the proper care and feeding of elephants. And how could we possibly pull together the membership of the IACUC (animal use) committee?  It couldn’t be done by the weekend we informed the president that afternoon.

But then Alabama football supporters intervened overnight and we were back in business on Thursday morning. Suffice it to say that IACUC met that afternoon and reluctantly approved a protocol submitted by the fraternity. Finding a veterinarian to co-sign the protocol on Friday morning (both our regular veterinarians were out-of-town) was an adventure unto itself. Of course, we got our pound of flesh from the fraternity. On Friday afternoon at 5 pm, all the fraternity members and their dates, decked out in their ballroom finery, were subjected to a short lecture by a scruffy biology faculty member on the proper treatment of elephants.

But it didn’t end there. During photo-ops with the elephants on Saturday morning (if you don’t believe my story, see attached photo of myself and Dr. Woods with one of the elephants), a distinguished and prominent elderly alumnus of Alabama was knocked down and received scratches when a fraternity genius insisted on having pictures taken with the elephant holding a football by his curled up trunk. The football escaped and the elephant tried valiantly to “catch” the ball, thereby knocking down the alumnus. Arriving at the President’s Box with a torn shirt sleeve and bloodstained arm, the alumnus subsequently refused to participate in the required inquiry. All in all, Alabama personnel spent over two years bringing the case to a resolution with all parties including the federal government.

It’s a funny story. Hey, I was worried that the female elephants might charge the football stadium when the famous trumpeting of the male mating call at the start of the game echoed from the stadium! But it’s a story that displays in the microcosm what universities experience every day, every hour, every minute, and every second. I often claim that universities are the most regulated enterprises in America. You don’t believe me? Then test your knowledge against the following abbreviated list of regulatory activities and acronyms: IRB, IBC, HIPPA, TAL, ETRAC, conflict of interest monitoring, radiation safety committee, adverse lab events reporting, data and records retention, time and effort, trafficking in persons, export controls and dual-use technology, controlled substances and CFATS, MSDS, secondary chemical labeling, responsible conduct of research, misconduct in science, facilities security officer, … , and the list goes on. For every item in the list, I have funny stories to tell including the glacial acetic acid gift that kept on taking instead of giving, Babe the goldfish, and Ralph the turtle. But, unfortunately, it’s not a joke or a funny story. Regulations are an integral part of academe. And they affect research, discovery, and the ultimate goal of innovation.

First of all, compliance with regulations consumes an enormous amount of time. Witness the two years spent dealing with the Alabama elephant issue. Imagine how much time it takes for newly minted faculty members to come up-to-speed with the daunting list of regulatory activities presented above – not to mention the amount of time actually engaged in satisfying the regulations. Literally hundreds, if not over a thousand, IACUC and IRB protocols are reviewed every year on most campuses.

Second, compliance with regulations leads to bureaucracy and what many consider administrative bloat at universities as the price tag for tuition outpaces salary growth and inflation to pay for the costs. Every university these days has a Compliance Office and officer. But as Representative Barney Frank likes to say, it’s not fat in the form of gristle on the edge of our steaks that can easily be cut off, but more like marbling, firmly intertwined in the process of doing business. So how do you like your steaks?

Third, the regulatory environment has continued to morph and evolve into a set of regulations so hyper-technical that universities must hire content specialists to deal with them, often one for every major area such as human subjects versus animal care versus export controls. Does the federal government really believe that carrying the newest laptop with the latest software to China on university business is a violation, especially when the computer parts were likely made in China and the software development was out-sourced to foreign nations? Or must we prove and establish for audit purposes that no federal grant dollars on any federal grant were used for trafficking in people, usually for the sex trade market?

So, let’s cut to the chase! Should government, whether federal, state or local, regulate our activities and are we as a society, including universities, over-regulated to the point of stifling innovation, job, and business growth? It’s a great question for America and one that should not become politicized and made a slogan as it is in danger of becoming in our current dysfunctional environment. In the macro-sense, it’s easy to debase regulations and bemoan their impact, elephant stories notwithstanding. But in the micro-sense when a specific family of regulations is examined in detail – such as “informed consent” for “experiments” on human subjects or even the care and feeding of elephants, one faces the old “wait-a-minute” moment – that moment when we face the reality of the need for regulations for our own protection and the protection of society as a whole. Yes, we need regulatory reform, but not the wholesale purging suggested by some. Regulation is a difficult issue that will require the best of us, but it’s not a four-letter word – at least, not yet.