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.

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