Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Inside Boxes

In an article ostensibly lamenting the collateral impact of increased security for America's borders, the following sentence appears:
Among postdoctoral students doing top-level reasearch, 60% are foreign-born.
Putting aside the implication that native-born doctoral students are somehow subpar, I wonder at the worldview that might make sense of such a statistic. Just what could "top-level research" possibly mean objectively? By what stretch of the imagination might we constrain cutting-edge research into manageable gradations, such that some students' research could be deemed top-level, mid-level, low-level, remedial?

It would seem that such a worldview might in part be to blame for what Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has described as a broken innovation ecosystem. If innovation is stifled in America today, a large part of the blame rests in the assumption that the value of research can be known in advance, that such value can be assigned on the basis of what is already known, rather than on the basis of what is yet to be discovered.

At the risk of repeating myself, it is to support and sustain the discover of new innovations that there is such a need in the economy for seed funding, small pots of money to sustain a spare few researchers testing the mettle of their ideas, and driving the successful attempts to market. The Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) is one of the few sources for such seed funding, and just now it's being held hostage to the whims of the House Small Business Committee, in particular the committee's Chair, Nydia Velázquez, and Ranking Member Sam Graves. Their maneuvering has kept the SBIR program from reauthorization for two years now, doling out so far six short-term continuing resolutions. Whatever their motivation, support for innovation and small businesses is not among them!

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