Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Academia ≠ Innovation

I have just become aware of a little tidbit of academic freedom that to my mind serves as a remarkably salient reminder of why academia is not the most conducive environment for innovation.

The principle on which I rest this pronouncement is a belief that innovation most often arises from an admixture of ideas from various fields, cross-fertilizing to result in some new knowledge. When chemists began to think about biological systems, and biologists wondered at organic chemistry, voilá Biochemistry arose!

But academia is quite often structured in such a way that scholars are herded and confined like calves for veal, or blindered like racehorses, their freedom of movement allowed only within pre-established lanes. Think not outside the box!

Apparently some recent court cases have called into question academics' freedom of speech "outside of your field of scholarship." Members of the Faculty Senate at the University of California-Davis for instance were recently notified:

...university policies on academic freedom ... only protect speech and behavior in your area of demonstrated academic scholarship.

Are they serious? Absolutely astonishing!

And yet... arising from this same culture of veal-calf confinement is the whining complaint that the Senate's version of the SBIR reauthorization bill (S.1233) threatens the great strength of academic-led innovation because it allows for a microscopic increase (at .1%/year for 10 years!) of the allocation of federal R&D funding from 2.5% to 3.5%! The basis of their complaint is that raising the allocation for small business innovation necessarily reduces the pot of funds available elsewhere.

This letter by the "Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research" currently circulating bemoans:

...a mandatory increase in the SBIR allocation across agencies will necessarily result in funding cuts for the peer-reviewed research conducted by other organizations.

They go on to argue disingenously:
Rather than increasing support for one type of research at the expense of all others, we urge Congress to work with the Obama Administration to increase funding for all research, thereby increasing the total investment in SBIR.
Why golly, 96.5% isn't enough for you? Funny, it seems that 97.5% hasn't been enough either. You see, the very same group that pretends to support increased funding across the board for all research, lauded the $10.4 billion allocation to NIH in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), calling for an additional $2.1 billion in FY 2010, yet remained provocatively and conspicuously silent on the underhanded and counterproductive exclusion of SBIR and STTR from those expenditures. How can you argue with a straight-face that increasing funding across the board benefits all parties, yet remain silent when there is increased support for one type of research at the expense of another?

More importantly benefit should be measured in terms of the potential of results to solve realworld problems and to succeed in the marketplace, where they might actually reach their intended recipients. Else the benefit is merely hypothetical, locked in a petri dish on a shelf, or in a paper published and presented then forgotten. Research, even basic research, should have a more lofty goal than perpetuo sui. Federal expenditures should be directed at practical applications with commercial viability, not merely at propelling the careers of academics and funding their students and postdocs (many of whom at the end of the day will find the opportunities lacking and the playing field all but level for those without connections or money).

If those academic institutions provided sufficient opportunities for all the worthy and innovative researchers, there'd be little need or incentive for the rest of us to launch our own ventures. But as they do not, and as they provide no evidence of moving in that direction, SBIR remains one of the very few resources available to foster and support an open marketplace of ideas, based not on paper credentials and affiliations, but on the strength of the proposed research and its potential viability in the commercial domain.

SBIR allows but a tiny fraction as a percentage of federal R&D already on the books to be set-aside for open competition among the most innovative small businesses in the land. The requirements for SBIR firms are more stringent than for academic institutions (expecting commercial potential as well as technical merit) for far fewer dollars. SBIR firms enter Phase I on probation, allowed a mere six months funding to prove the feasibility of their proposed efforts before being invited to compete for further funding.

In many cases, these proposals are evaluated not by our peers, but under the biased gaze of those very academics who would rather retain all available funds for fellow academics. To coin a phrase, this isn't peer-review but Evaluation Without Representation! What I'd like to hear are the justifications that academic institutions (and large corporations and government labs) have any right to such uncontested access to taxpayers' money! And where others are permitted to compete, that they should retain the right and authority to decide where those funds should go. Why do they fear an open and fair competition of ideas?

What are we protecting here? What do we value as a nation and a people? What is the best means for expending federal R&D dollars? I would propose it is through programs like SBIR, focused on ensuring that innovative researchers are allowed to compete for the means to support their efforts to remedy existing failures, with an eye toward the commericial viability of their results. This is transparency; this is the path to job creation, to innovation, to economic well-being. What is the alternative?

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