Thursday, May 12, 2011

Life is Tough for Innovators in the Academy

By Keith McDowell

Acceleration! It’s what we all want when we push the accelerator pedal in our car. But is that what we get? Ask Toyota owners. Maybe the pedal sticks on the carpet pad causing out-of-control acceleration or the electronic control system malfunctions. Or perhaps those who purchase a Toyota inherently can’t tell the difference between the accelerator and the brake pedal. It’s in their genes.

And then there is the old issue of what some call “pick up” – the ability of the car to accelerate rapidly. Of course, a Lamborghini not only has that but other desirable “pick up” features as well, if you know what I mean. Electric cars and hybrids are perceived to be hound dogs in the “pick up” game and they’re not even cheap. So what does it take to build a high performance car?

Only a fool would believe that the accelerator system, electronic or not, is the key component of such a car. It’s not just one system, but the entire car and every one of its components, all functioning as a finely tuned instrument, which produces results. And to build such a car, attention must be paid to all the components and their interplay.

So, what happens when President Obama, or Congress, or a Governor, or anyone else pushes down on the innovation accelerator pedal? Do we see rapid acceleration or do we have a hound dog – no offense meant to that fine canine breed? That question in many forms is being asked every day across a wide spectrum of American leadership. And at the core is the innovation engine – the American university, or more specifically, research faculty members.

Some argue that innovation is only about adding commercial value to “intellectual property.” Research faculty members don’t count as part of the innovation equation in their thinking. Hmm, sounds like those folks are hung up on the Toyota acceleration problem and don’t understand the concept of a high performance car. I respect the need to engage in debate about the meaning and definition of innovation, even if only a rhetorical or academic exercise. But building a high performance innovation ecosystem with a responsive accelerator pedal requires “discovery” by research faculty members as early-stage innovation in the value chain. Without addressing the discovery component and getting it optimal and finely tuned, pushing the innovation accelerator pedal is going to yield only a flaccid response and not what we want.

So, instead of the accelerator, let’s push the OnStar button and get a status check on research faculty members and see how well they are doing. Unfortunately, it’s a sad and disturbing report. On the one hand, faculty members are viewed through the political filter as left-wing liberals, certain to transform all young people into degenerates who destroy all we value as Americans. Others view them as feckless social neuters who live off the fat of the land and contribute nothing but the thirty thousandth and first research paper on Shakespeare. In Texas, the Governor supports a simplistic program advocated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation to measure the productivity and worth of faculty members to their institutions at the individual level. They want to separate research from education of the high technology workforce! How’s that going to work to produce a finely-tuned, high-performance innovation ecosystem in Texas? It’s retrograde thinking.

But the real shocker from the status report is the current job description for faculty members. It’s the silent and almost unknown killer of innovation through discovery and the subsequent downstream commercialization of university research. Here is my list of the responsibilities of a modern faculty member. It is not rank ordered.

  1. Educator/Trainer
  2. Advisor/Mentor/Counselor
  3. Researcher/Scholar
  4. Complier to rules and regulations
  5. Salesman/Grantsman
  6. Author/Publisher
  7. Speaker/Traveler
  8. Reviewer/Referee
  9. Administrator
  10. Innovator/Inventor/Entrepreneur
  11. Economic developer
  12. Social engineer
  13. Service professional
  14. Community engager
  15. Human being/family member

A more complete description of these responsibilities can be found in Go Forth and Innovate!

It’s a daunting list of responsibilities! My generation of research faculty members grew up the post World War II era. Many of these responsibilities, while important, consumed little time and we were free to innovate through independent research and discovery. Our mantra was “and they pay me to do this!” But times have changed and the burdens associated with these responsibilities have grown. The mantra for many of our young potential faculty members has become “and who needs this!”

Let’s take the role of administrator as a specific example. Faculty members are now spending 42% of their time and effort on research grant administrative matters according to a survey by the Federal Demonstration Partnership. I repeat, 42%! In the 1980s, the number was 18%. How did this happen? How can it be that so much time is no longer spent on productive research? Research compliance and associated paperwork account for some of the load. But there are other factors. The administrative load of grant paperwork has increased. In the past much of that load was carried out by administrative assistants, but OMB circular A-21 excluded administrative costs as direct costs. Furthermore, indirect administrative costs are capped at 26%, below the percentage actually required. Unreimbursed indirect costs are a real problem for universities leading to cuts in administrative support to research grants. With the current financial and economic crisis in America and the massive budget cuts at universities, administrative support for research grants will be cut further and the load will fall on the faculty members. America will be lucky if the 42% administrative load holds at that level.

There are other faculty member responsibilities that are likewise exploding exponentially. The peer review system for publications, for faculty promotion and tenure evaluations, and for academic programs is not sustainable and considered broken by many including this author. Furthermore, the grants and research funding system is an enormous bureaucracy that works in some measure to produce “me too” incremental research, but tends to stifle frontier, cutting-edge research. And the list goes on.

The point is clear. The research faculty member as a full contributor to the innovation ecosystem is an endangered species. As Obama pushes the innovation accelerator to the floor board, the innovation ecosystem is going to sputter. How can it do otherwise? It’s no longer a high performance system. It’s a Model T Ford! At least one of its essential components is already maxed out.

Are we doing anything to help change the equation for research faculty members? Just the opposite! We keep piling on more and pushing harder on the pedal. Some use the rubric “more with less.” I like efficiency and improving productivity. We all do. But burning out an essential component isn’t the answer.

Some argue that we should dump the current innovation ecosystem completely and create an entirely new one. I see no rational reason to do that and we will still be faced with finding a slot for the discovery process and independent researchers. Instead, we need to free up our early-stage innovators and let them do what they do best.

Being a research faculty member is a complex job with many facets and responsibilities. The path from enthralled youngster curious about the ways of Mother Nature through student days to tenured faculty member and independent researcher is a worthy challenge that many choose to undertake. America, we need these people! Let’s not make their path and their life any tougher than it already is.

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