Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Innovation Redux: The Prince House Story

By Keith McDowell

The crash of a dart board smacking into the wooden flooring rudely interrupted my deep pondering of the relationship between Brueckner and natural spinorbitals.  It was the late 1960s at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and someone was obviously taking out their revenge on “Tricky Dick” whose image was prominently attached to the board. Having lost my train of thought and knowing that it was time to head home for dinner, I stood up from my personal desk, opened the door to my office, and crossed the hallway to the common room, making sure to stay out of the line of fire from the intrepid and sometimes erratic dart thrower. As I entered the room, I noted that a scorecard on the blackboard had new chalk marks indicating additional sightings of the ugly cat, presumably a possession of the old woman who lived in faculty housing next to the Prince House. The truth be known, I never saw the cat myself, but I accepted its existence as a fact given the presumptive sightings. What other choice did I have?

And at the large table which occupied much of the room, several of my fellow theoretical chemical physics graduate students and postdoctoral fellows – each one a showpiece of the hippie culture, were hotly engaged in an argument about the collapse of wave functions and the meaning of reality – the Schrödinger cat paradox or a Freudian analysis of their dreams notwithstanding. Sigma, a neurotic and psychologically challenged mixed breed male collie rescued from the local dog pound, sat at their feet. Only the day before, many of those same debaters had captured a female mutt in heat and attempted to instruct Sigma in the finer points of canine intercourse. It was one of those “you had to be there” funny moments, yet symbolic of life and the passage of time as an inhabitant of Prince House.

The Morton Prince House was a three-story frame house with a basement and was originally a faculty home located behind the Mallinckrodt Chemistry Building at Harvard University. Quoting from an article by George K. Sweetnam in The Harvard Crimson of 16 June 1977:

The 126-year-old structure has housed personalities ranging from the professor of Geology for whom Mt. Whitney was named to Timothy Leary, who is rumored to have conducted his early experiments with hallucinogens in the Prince House’s basement.

During the late 1960s, Prince House contained the main office for the biochemistry department as well as offices for most of the theoretical chemistry and chemical physics graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, approximately twenty in number at any given time. It was only fitting that such a diverse group of America’s best and brightest ranging from ultra-conservatives to left-wing liberals and arrogant SOBs to silent introverts should be thrown together to practice the art and science of theoretical chemistry in the historic Prince House. It was a grand adventure with high jinks galore including ugly cat sightings and with intense and liberating debates on any subject, no matter how mundane or profound. Did creativity and innovation occur in such an environment? You bet! Prince House in the 1960s and early 1970s was an accidental experiment in how best to provide a suitable environment to create, to innovate, and to learn. To its credit, Harvard attempted in the late 1970s to recreate the Prince House phenomenon with an “open design” facility when the original Prince House was moved and turned into an office building for functionary bureaucrats. It didn’t work.

The Prince House experience wasn’t just about scientific debate in open common rooms or collaborative research and study, nor was it just about quiet introspection and deep thought by private individuals into the scientific issues of the day. It was also about the shared experience of the hippie and anti-war culture and the social fabric of the time. It was the theatre of the absurd upon which creativity and innovation flourished. And it is a story that someone should tell and others should analyze as America strives to find the best formula for global competition through discovery and innovation.

In some measure, two recent articles in The New York Times capture the essence of the Prince House experience and reflect where America should be headed. The first article by Susan Cain and entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink pushes back on the notions of open innovation, brainstorming by teams, group learning, and the power of collaboration as the sole means for achieving creativity and innovation or as a means to learn new material. She re-establishes the primacy of solitude and freedom from interruption as key factors in producing quality discoveries, innovations, and learning. But it’s a lesson already learned … and forgotten. Indeed, Prince House demonstrated that it takes a freeform admixture of the private musing of the solo genius as well as social networking, whether through the modern Internet or the cultural imperatives of the 1960s, to achieve success.

The second article by Thomas Lin and entitled Cracking Open the Scientific Process extols the virtues and imperatives of transforming the scientific process into a 21st Century enterprise making full use of instant worldwide communication and social networking. It pushes for the development of new assessment tools and metrics to measure the productivity of the individual scholar, researcher, and innovator in order to enable electronic brainstorming and individual contributions to collective problem solving while eliminating or greatly reducing peer pressure, peer-reviewed journals, and the handful of gatekeepers who throttle and often choke discovery and innovation. It’s the world of websites such as GalaxyZoo, MathOverflow, and ResearchGate – a form of Facebook for scientists to practice an enhanced form of social networking to create and to innovate. It’s a new world order for STEM that I’ve advocated for and supported elsewhere. But it’s also not new.

In a microcosm, Prince House in the 1960s already had all the essential ingredients of the new world order. For example, pecking order in Prince House, if I can call it that, wasn’t established by peer-reviewed journal articles, but by one’s contribution to the Prince House community either through debate, self-selected collaboration on scientific projects, or participation in learning circles and prepared seminars on subjects of interest, just to name a few of the “happenings” of that time including ugly cat sightings. It was unforced social networking on a local scale! And it worked!

But let’s be clear about one thing: the Prince House gang and the grand experiment didn’t solve all the scientific problems of the day nor were the gang members the only contributors to or the only nexus of scientific progress. Furthermore, the modern versions of groupthink and even the private musings of the solo genius have not solved one of the greatest challenges of our era: to create the theory of everything that explains our universe.  It’s the oldest lesson of them all. Formation of the best of all possible structures and processes doesn’t always guarantee success or immediate gratification when it comes to discovery and innovation.

But in the final analysis, I vote for a 21st Century version of the Prince House experiment, one that preserves the sanctity of the individual and the need for solitude and reflection without interruption coupled to a full-blown social network with a freeform spectrum of options and choices that recognizes the need for new and additional metrics of individual success and contributions to the whole while properly archiving the record for posterity. I vote for a global Prince House! Hmm, I wonder if I still have my bell-bottom jeans and tie-died shirts?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Predator-Prey Behavior: A Winning Strategy?

By Keith McDowell

Somewhere in America ensconced in an ordinary university conference room replete with the typical trappings of government purchased furniture, a pot of coffee, a box of pastries, a plate of fruit for the calorie conscious, and a plentiful supply of bottled water, you will find on a daily basis a mixed team of researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, management, licensing agents, and university administrators preparing to sit down with those who possess the most precious resource of all needed to form a startup company: money!

On some days, the potential investors are simply friends and family members, curious about the proceedings and sometimes nervous about loosing their savings. On other days, it’s the turn of angel investors, often bedecked in their Stetson hats, bolo ties, and cowboy boots, but with a determined glint in their eyes and a clear intent of “getting to know” the people involved on a personal basis with the hope of a “hands-on” approach to investing. And then there are the venture capitalists who cover the spectrum from business casual to corporate pinstripe suits with power ties and almost always possessing an air of “been there, done this before.” Rarely, if ever, does one find public sector investors, although the Federal SBIR/STTR program is excellent and sometimes provides an appropriate funding mechanism for startup companies.

No one disputes that the formation of such startup companies is an essential component of an American strategy to compete globally and to maintain dominance in the commercial marketplace. And no one disputes the goal of American prosperity through capital formation and the creation of wealth and jobs. But what is the exit strategy for the investors in such startups? Will there be winners and losers?

With all due respect to Bain Capital, the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, his leadership at the company, and his reputed and alleged behavior as a “corporate raider,” extractionist, or “vulture capitalist” have brought to the forefront a renewed discussion of such predatory practices and whether indeed they are part and parcel of a capitalist economy. Of course, they exist and will continue to exist independent of whether one accepts as true to life the characterization of Gordon Gekko portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street. As a case in point, I have an acquaintance who vigorously rails against the “vulture capitalists” who extracted over $1 million from his Texas-sized wallet! But his experience begs the question: are such predatory practices ultimately healthy for the economy?

Mother Nature knows the answer! After several million years of testing and evolving an ever more complex and sustainable ecosystem in the biosphere of Planet Earth, the predator-prey model has been fully vetted. So what has been learned about such behavior. especially by the scientific community as they observe and come to understand the grand experiment of Mother Nature?

Let’s begin with the logistic map, a simple mathematical model of predator-prey behavior and well explained at wikipedia with accompanying graphics. As one cranks up the single control parameter, the dynamics of the model displays the phenomenon of “period doubling” or the existence of multiple meta-stable states. In simple terms, it’s equivalent to the “binge-purge” cycle found in anorexia bulimia or even the “boom-bust” cycles of the business world. Ultimately, the logistic map leads to the onset of chaotic dynamics. Is this the kind of behavior we want and expect from the American economy? It’s what we’ll get if a pure predator-prey form of capitalism is practiced.

But Mother Nature didn’t stop with such simple behavior! Nor did chaotic dynamics deter her as well. Instead, Mother Nature adapted and evolved to more complex systems with control and feedback loops built into the dynamics. Some of the best examples of such highly complex and nonlinear systems reside in our own bodies and include the beating of the human heart and the pattern of our breathing. Even more amazing, the human brain appears to function at the cusp or onset of chaos according to some reports. Indeed, many forms of epileptic seizure are believed to occur when the brain drops out of its normal state of chaotic onset and behaves in a linear fashion. Goodness! Could it be that the paralysis seizing the collective brain of Congress is the institutional realization of a corporate epileptic seizure?

In the modern world of high-performance computers, it is becoming a routine and straightforward exercise to model highly complex and nonlinear systems including economic and financial systems. And as discovered by Mother Nature, one learns quickly that a simple predator-prey model is far from the best. Optimal performance requires a capitalist economy tempered by some redistribution of resources (money) from those who accumulate the most (predators) to form social safety nets for those who accumulate the least (prey). Without such highly evolved networked and holistic dynamical systems, the world is doomed to an endless repetition of behavior and response at the low end of the evolutionary scale, a world of putative “winners” and “losers” where civilization as a whole becomes locked in a cycle with only marginal advancement.

Let’s be clear! Advanced capitalism as a highly complex dynamical system does not equate to, nor require, predator-prey behavior, although such behavior is possible and typically permissible. Furthermore, making a business decision to close plants or restructure a company, or even to plan an exit strategy from a startup company, is a normal activity and not one to be vilified. But carried to the extreme and practiced as a predatory strategy, such behavior to benefit the few at the expense of the total economy should be exposed and revealed as a sub-optimal form of capitalism and perhaps made illegal in some of its more destructive forms.

Mother Nature has proven that predator-prey behavior is not a winning strategy for America. We should listen to her!

The image was copied from an interesting webpage by Atlin Das describing the human brain and chaotic dynamics.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stolen Once, Stolen Twice, Sold to the Highest Bidder!

By Keith McDowell

Don’t tell anyone but Academe has a hidden secret that few talk about or admit, but one that every scholar and every researcher learns about early in their career through hushed whispers and their own experience. It’s a secret that affects and impacts daily behavior and the course of academic scholarly activity and research. And, of course, it’s a secret that transcends Academe and infects the business world as well. What is that secret? People steal! They steal not just pencils, paper, or other trivial resources found in the workplace but, most important to a proper functioning of the innovation ecosystem and specifically for R&D, they steal ideas and they steal knowledge, almost always for personal gain. And it’s a story with a long history.

Who invented the calculus? Was it Sir Isaac Newton or Gottried Wilhelm Leibnitz? How about the radio? History books claim Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor, but the U.S. Supreme Court after a lengthy court case supported the prior work of Nicola Tesla in 1943. And who can forget the more recent public and acrimonious dispute between Robert Gallo and the French as to the discovery of the HIV virus?

Is the theft of ideas a rare event trumpeted by headlines and mostly ignored by individuals as something that “can’t happen to me” or is it a common place event so ingrained that we have altered our behavior to account for it? I vote for the latter. It’s happened to me. Twice! After the first instance, I should have known better than to talk with anyone but the most trusted of friends about a new scientific idea, but I did it again and it cost me a research publication, credit for a new idea, and a new area for research since I didn’t have the resources at the time to compete. And I’m not the only one. Most of my closest friends in the science community have told me stories and proven beyond reasonable doubt to me that their ideas have been stolen.

Such thievery most definitely affects our behavior and ultimately innovation! How is that? Every researcher knows about the most common mechanism for theft of an idea. It’s called a research proposal for Federal funding. No matter the pledges taken by proposal reviewers or the care of Federal program managers – all done in good faith by all for the most part, the truth is that once an idea is out, it’s out! It’s a fact of life and a factor in the lack of truly transformative proposals. It’s a game where one completes research before proposing it. And in a similar manner, the same can be said for the world of scientific publications through the peer review of research papers.

But as annoying as the ordinary theft of ideas has been throughout the history of humankind, another more troubling pattern is beginning to emerge in American society as innovation through the creation of ideas assumes an ever more important value proposition for global competition. And it comes with the patina of a liberal and progressive concept otherwise known as open government and transparency.

For many decades, researchers and scholars in American universities presumed that they owned their research as manifested by logbooks, data files, strip charts, and all the other accoutrements necessary to maintain the record of their efforts. Many, like me, packed up and moved their ever increasing research baggage with them as they moved from job to job. But then, Federal bureaucracy encroached as everyone learned that ownership of federally funded research resided with the university, not the researcher. Indeed, the notion of “data retention” in such research and fidelity thereto became a grant condition to be monitored and reviewed. As a former university vice president of research, I can cite from experience specific research programs whose records were reviewed and where audit findings were reported on the quality of the data management. Sadly, the time-honored presumption that “my research is mine” has been booted into the trashcan of the past.

And then “climategate” occurred in November of 2009 with the posting of hacked emails showing that scientists can sometimes behave like ordinary and even venal people. But that wasn’t the real message. The real message was that emails between and among researchers and others are part and parcel of the record of a research program and are accessible to the public through either the Federal or state Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA).

In 2011 the American Tradition Institute (ATI), a group dismissive of human-caused climate change, issued just such a request against the University of Virginia and the emails of a former professor, Michael E. Mann, an international authority on global climate change currently employed by Penn State University. The FOIA request followed on the heels of an attempt by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II to obtain the research records and proposal documents of Professor Mann using a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. That CID was eventually denied in a court action. For those interested in the details, the Mann case has its own wikipedia page where one can access a plethora of documents and read all the pros and cons of exposing the working records of research in progress to the public eye.

Despite the political trappings of the Mann case and the hoopla surrounding it, the case is of profound importance to our American system of performing research and how we protect our laboratories from the prying eye, not only from the eye of those with a political agenda, but from the eye of those who would steal our ideas and our research. Even worse, have we inadvertently awakened a new threat: the research troll?

Let’s suppose for a moment that you are one of two entities, either a large and very competitive corporation (think the IT sector) or a foreign nation such as China eager to gather information about early-stage research to obtain a competitive advantage. Why not secretly fund “research trolls” or entities that gather and collect early-stage research through FOIA requests, the use of “bots” to datamine faculty webpages, and other such legal, but ultimately nefarious endeavors, not to mention hacking. Bundled together such knowledge packages would have value.

We already have ample proof that various nation states send “graduate students” – people who already possess a doctorate degree – to America to gather information in our university laboratories. Why not add the mechanism of FOIA requests to the arsenal? In fact, for those with a short memory, such FOIA tactics have been around for some time and used by serial FOIA requesters such as the infamous Sunshine Project.

The time has come for America to create the bright line between transparency and open government and our need to carry out research and create new ideas in a protective environment, free from harassment and abuse by our current FOIA laws, free from disruption of the scientific process including dialogue through emails, and free from the ultimate theft of our ideas. Whatever one’s views are on where the bright line should be – and there are many points of view including the impact on academic freedom, this debate must be had. The problem is not going away and it is likely to metastasize into the appearance of research trolls, if they don’t already exist, selling our nation’s ideas to the highest bidders. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Expect the Unexpected in 2012!

By Keith McDowell

Tired of watching football bowl games? How about all those missed field goals? And for sure, we all wait with unchallenged anticipation for the replay of Alabama versus LSU for the BCS National Championship. Hey, I once worked for Alabama. Roll Tide!

And if watching bowl games is not enough to sate your desire to perform absolutely nothing of value during the holidays, there is always the annual pastime of making resolutions for the new year while prognosticating on how great the year will be … or not. Of course, for those with an addiction to politics as a contact sport, this year will provide the best fix of all. We get to watch an extended replay of the game between the Grand Old Party versus the Democrats … or is it Obama versus Congress?

Certainly Obama scored the first touchdown of the year by a recess appointment of Richard Cordray as Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency with Congress supposedly in recess, but actually not. Hmm, is it possible the game clock hit 00.00 too soon? I can hardly wait to hear the verdict from the replay booth after the Republicans challenge the call on the field. Analysts in the MSNBC and Fox News booths are already busy showing the scoring play from every angle.

What about the most important game of all? For those not paying attention to world events, that would be the game of global competition and the American strategy of out-innovating. Is the strategy working? Or are we watching the game clock and warming up our field goal kicker? And, of course, with nothing better to do as we endure the halftime and wait for the second half to begin, it’s important that we perform the necessary and obligatory act of announcing a list of desirable American innovation resolutions for the new year and of making our predictions as to what one might expect for the year.

Recognizing that the innovation ecosystem is coupled to other systems such as the economy, government, and the policies and law of the land, here is my list of American innovation resolutions for 2012. America should resolve to:

  • Implement fully the Obama Innovation Plan.
  • Identify grand challenges of high priority and fund networked and distributed innovation hubs or “lablets” ala the U.S. Department of Energy model to attack the challenges and build communities of innovation around them. Building an entrepreneurial culture including students as part of these communities is absolutely essential. Consideration should also be given to including various forms of funding for “proof of concept” research.
  • Expand and enhance alternative energy incentives – particularly for solar and wind energy – to build momentum for innovation in energy and to eventually achieve the goal of energy independence.
  • Increase the Federal R&D budget to 3% of GDP.
  • Expand and simplify a permanent R&D tax credit for industry.
  • End foolish restrictions, unnecessary bureaucracy, and silly quotas on green cards and permanent residency for the best and brightest from the international talent pool.
  • Create a coherent national manufacturing policy and program founded on the best aspects of NACFAM’s “Top 3” Manufacturing Policy Priorities, ITIF’s Charter for Revitalizing American Manufacturing, and similar such plans. Our problem is not a lack of quality ideas for manufacturing, but a failure to implement and take action. As others have emphasized, it’s all about the four T’s: Technology, Trade, Tax, and Talent!
  • Bring export control rules and regulations into the 21st-century.

And not to be outdone by others and to complete the obligatory resolution-prediction exercise before the next kickoff, here are my predictions for 2012:

  • Congressional dysfunction continues unabated and even intensified until at least the presidential election, unnecessarily slowing the economy and impairing innovation.
  • The focus on the deficit and excessive budget cutting to the point of starvation, both literally and figuratively, as opposed to an investment or “customer” focus that includes the growth of jobs, an end to most home foreclosures, a tax payroll cut extension for the full year, and other such devices to keep a thriving middle class of business customers continues despite rhetoric to the contrary.
  • The end of stimulus (ARRA) R&D funding produces a strong negative effect on the university research community.
  • Freedom of Information requests and other such “transparency requirements” on research notes, or data, or information negatively impacts commercialization of university research and potentially opens the gates for “research trolls” – those who would gather, package, and sell such information on the international market. [Note: I’ll have more to say on this topic in a subsequent article.]
  • The unintended consequences of the American Invents Act – the new “patent law” – begin to emerge, especially at universities. It will be interesting to see how smart people “game” the law since they most certainly will.
  • The middle-class (99%) will revolt against Congress in the voting booth.
  • The cybersecurity threat and “hacking” of all varieties including state-sponsored hacking will explode into an international crisis with potentially dire effects on the world economy.
  • The struggle to achieve accountability through innovation metrics will continue and accelerate but it won’t matter materially since researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs will ignore and blow past such distractions as they always do.
  • The “God particle” (alias Higgs Boson) will be discovered to the chagrin of the religious community who believe in revealed truth.
  • President Obama will be elected by a landslide.

Yikes! And all I wanted for Christmas was a touchscreen, voice-activated, iPadish-style laptop including keyboard with free wireless and superspeed connectivity to the Internet. Some of us still use computers for something other than a source for content! So Apple, when do I get my wish?

Mayan predictions aside and Nostradamus notwithstanding, the year 2012 should be a most interesting year with many countervailing forces coming into alignment. I’m certain of one thing. Expect the unexpected!