Government Support for Innovation

I am a professor in a research university, so I like to think that universities have played an important role in the U.S.’s success as an innovation economy. In fact, there is a lot of research showing that university research is an important part of the “national innovation system” of all successful countries. In the U.S., a lot of this innovation is funded by the federal government, according to a recent editorial by Tom Katsouleas in the Chronicle of Higher Education.* Beginning after WWII, the federal government began investing .2 percent of GDP in basic research, mostly at universities. This changed universities from the “pure knowledge/ivory tower” stereotype (filled with absent minded professors and genteel poverty of the faculty) into key components of national economic strategy.

Katsouleas argues that what is still missing from universities is “translational capacity”: the ability to take basic research findings, and show how to apply it to solve pressing social and economic problems. Most professors, myself included, are focused on the creation of new knowledge: advancing the boundaries of the discipline by contributing discoveries, theories, or frameworks that have never been known before. But sometimes, innovation requires taking existing knowledge and combining it, or applying it, in new ways. Most professors at research universities aren’t rewarded for combining existing knowledge, nor for applying existing knowledge. “Creating new knowledge” is how you get rewarded by your peers and by your university.

Katsouleas calls the translational gap “the valley of death”–implying that ideas die there. He acknowledges that things have gotten a lot better since 1980, when the famous Bayh-Dole act (named after its two sponsoring U.S. senators) gave universities the intellectual property rights to discoveries made with government funding, thus encouraging them to commercialize those discoveries. He argues that one solution is to teach doctoral students not only science, but

performing an impact or market analysis of the student’s field; minicourses tailored to Ph.D.’s in business skills, finance and accounting, science policy, entrepreneurship, etc.; and mentoring from successful entrepreneurs and from faculty members outside the sciences on how their work is informed by and affects society at large.

There’s no question that translation is a difficult problem. But Bayh-Dole has resulted in huge steps forward. And at my own university, it’s not uncommon for professors in the school of engineering to found startups based on their research, or for findings at our medical school to be commercialized. I agree that scientists are perhaps a bit too narrowly focused on their disciplines and could benefit from broader exposure to societal issues. But I’m not sure the solution is a mini-business education for scientists. What do you think?

*March 28, 2010. How Uncle Sam can support innovation.

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