Friday, August 26, 2011

Research Development as an Innovation Tool

By Keith McDowell

Do you know the identity of the next emergent industry sector or technology? Or is that information of little value as you plan investment strategies? How about emergent science or research frontiers? There are plenty of “gee whiz” science articles meant to stoke our interest – fear of black holes at CERN notwithstanding. If only we had time to read them all!

Does it matter where and how government, industry, or foundation dollars will be spent on research? Should it be driven by the whim of researchers as they prepare unsolicited proposals, or should it be driven by STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) gatekeepers who dictate new initiatives? And who keeps up with all of this? Yes, there are people who pay attention to such matters! And they are called “research development (RD) professionals” – not to be confused with R&D professionals or university development and advancement officers who seek gifts and donations.

Keeping up with our neighbors is not a new phenomena in America as we decide whether it’s time to move from a station wagon to a minivan and ultimately to an electric car. Or maybe it’s the move from vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3 files and the currently ubiquitous iPod or iPhone. As a society, we are constantly bombarded by commercials, consumer’s reports, and word-of-mouth as to the latest fad. In many ways, it’s information and product overload. And it’s all done for us with no effort on our part. We only need to absorb what we want to hear, make a choice, and then spend our money

So what about advances in science and technology and our attempts to prepare for the next research funding initiative or to ride along on the crest of the latest innovation wave? What choices do we have and how should we invest our time, resources, and money? Of course, research administrators at universities, inventors, investors, and innovation gurus have always played the game of searching out the next “new new” thing. But it’s getting harder to do. “What is easy has already been done!” is my favorite mantra.

Today, it’s all about inter-, multi-, and now trans-disciplinary activity with STEM being only a part of the equation. Complexity and convergence networked as systems of systems rule the day coupled to the integration of broader goals including ones focused on education, diversity, commercialization of university research, and engagement of universities in communities of innovation, to name a few. It’s the era of big everything including team science and even the science of team science. It’s universities and some industry sectors greatly expanding their R&D capacity through the construction of new laboratories and the attempt to transform local universities into research powerhouses to fuel regional innovation ecosystems. In short, it’s an explosion on all fronts to achieve a competitive advantage, whether local, national, or global.

But there are limits to the explosion as the amount of federal R&D dollars grows at a slower pace and the number of competitors increases. The American economy remains stagnant following what might be described as a lost decade. The Tea Party and others of the same ilk want no government and no spending. Science is no longer respected by many as the ultimate arbiter of what is real as global warming scientists are accused of “manipulating data” and evolution is debunked as “just a theory.” How does one compete in such an environment as we push harder on the proverbial accelerator pedal only to find our racecar trapped by an ever-growing tangle of vines?

One potential solution – or at least a tool to be used in the space of research institutions – is the RD professional. Unheralded and unsung, the RD profession has slowly grown from being an unwanted but acquired skill by central research administrators to a true profession. Its practitioners have banded together to form the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) and even have a Wikipedia page. According to last count, there are 243 such professionals in 120 institutions covering a wide range of entities and not limited to universities. In The University of Texas System, for example, two such individuals are easily identified: one at UT Dallas and one at UT San Antonio.

So what exactly is RD? I quote from the NORDP literature:

Research development is a set of strategic, proactive, catalytic, and capacity-building activities designed to facilitate individual faculty, teams of researchers, and central research administrations in attracting extramural research funding, creating relationships, and developing and implementing strategies that increase institutional competitiveness.

A brief list of the activities of RD professionals includes the following:

  • Identification and targeting of funding opportunities,
  • Proposal development including preparation of budgets and forms, review, and submission,
  • Formation of institutional strategic initiatives,
  • Team building within and across institutions and stakeholders through partnerships and alliances,
  • Interaction with agencies and stakeholders,
  • Coordination,
  • Outreach and training, and
  • Research on the growing field of RD as a discipline.

The NORDP website and the Wikipedia site have expanded discussions of the definition and activities of RD.

Network theory, as a tool in the social sciences, has played a major role and become an accelerant in the growth of RD as mappings of words, phrases, interactions, publications, and other conceivable packets are datamined to search for emergent groupings or to advance the concept of “group theory.” Websites such as Vivoweb and Elsevier’s Scival promote the growth and the use of such tools.

I applaud those industrious people who have created the RD profession. It is a needed addition to the innovation enterprise and one that all should become familiar with. But I believe there is a bigger story to be told and a bigger role for the RD concept. RD serves as the facilitator of the feedback loop between how and where we spend our R&D dollars and the creation of emergent STEM areas. A similar concept informs entrepreneurs, venture capital, and angels as they invest money and time on inventions, innovators, and innovations that create emergent industries. In mathematical terminology, both activities are homologous. Computer jocks would call them different instantiations of the same object.

What’s missing? Missing is a national innovation policy that melds the two together to form a comprehensive and competitive American innovation ecosystem and enterprise. Grand challenges to solve the pressing problems of our global society could be one element to such a policy. And there are plenty of other worthy ideas. But ultimately what’s missing is the will to create, adequately fund, and carry out a national innovation policy – the Obama innovation plan and his activities notwithstanding. The word “no” must be replaced by “yes we can.”

The mapping image was downloaded (Fig. 5) from the Plos One article Clickstream Data Yields High Resolution Maps of Science by Bollen, et al. The article is an excellent example of mapping and datamining as an RD activity.

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