Thursday, February 23, 2012

Towards a Competitive Texas

By Keith McDowell

The recent decision by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to cut the number of undergraduate physics programs putatively underperforming with respect to the number of graduates is symbolic of the plight facing our State when one implements an ideology to achieve austerity under the guise of efficiency. Driven by the excessive use of one-dimensional, data-based accountability on steroids, it is symptomatic of balkanized bureaucracies that never communicate to obtain a balanced approach to governing and thereby collectively fail to achieve the greater good for Texas and its inhabitants.  

And when such accountability is overlaid by a mishmash of rhetoric couched in language designed to obscure its true purpose while appealing to our baser instincts, such as that which emanates from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and its minions, we have a schizophrenic Texas that heralds the need for research universities as innovation engines through its emerging research university incentive programs, but closes part of the pipeline that feeds in new and diverse STEM talent – not to mention the continuing denigration of university faculty by some or the movement toward state-assisted rather than state-funded universities. It’s a failure to properly communicate and govern writ large!

Many such examples of the schizophrenic behavior pattern exist in Texas, the crassest epitome being the fact that the University of Texas in Austin and Texas A&M University are in separate football conferences. How crazy is that?

The potential to be “the best that we can be” is enormous in Texas and stems from our diversity in people, geography, communities that range from big city to rural crossroads, social networks, and natural resources – solar and wind energy being the most prominent for the future. But how do we harness all that potential, especially as regards our university, research, innovation, and entrepreneurial communities? It’s actually rather simple, but difficult to do in a polarized society: we communicate and work together in common cause. And what are some steps that Texas should take to achieve that goal? Here are five suggestions.

  • Intra- system research collaborations: We must first face the fact that even universities within a given Texas university system tend to compete rather than collaborate. The University of Texas System studied the problem and produced an excellent report entitled Research Collaboration Initiative on how to achieve research collaboration across multiple campuses in 2008. I defer to that report for system specific suggestions.
  • Texas university systems research working group: Texas needs to form immediately a working group of its chief research officers (CRO) at the university system level independent of political pressures as occurred during abortive efforts from the Innovate Texas Foundation directed by David Nance. Two meetings by the system CROs to form such a group were held at the University of Houston in February 2010 and at the University of North Texas in October 2010, but the continuation of the working group is currently in limbo.
  • National presence: Texas university systems both singularly and collectively need to create a much stronger national presence in Washington with respect to national research and innovation agendas. Compared to competitors such as the University of California System, the SUNY System, and the University of Maryland System, Texas is mostly missing in action and not a leader. We are too state centric – a notion explored fully in James A. Michener’s famous novel Texas. Initial discussions to form a national university-systems CRO working group under the aegis of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities were held in early 2010 but terminated following the restructuring of the research office at UT System.
  • University Energy Leadership Council: Beginning in the late fall of 2009 and continuing into the summer of 2010, UT System created an Energy Leadership Council comprised of the top energy researchers and administrators at the nine academic institutions. The council hosted an enormously successful meeting at UT Dallas in May of 2010 bringing together university researchers from across a broad spectrum of disciplines as well as entrepreneurs and community leaders in the energy sector. The intent of the council was to host subsequent meetings with the energy industry in Texas and to expand to include all university systems in Texas. Sad to say, that council died a quick death due to lack of follow-up leadership. It should be immediately reconstituted as a statewide entity. There is simply no excuse for Texas universities and university systems to plow the fertile ground of the energy sector using a mule to pull a nineteenth century plough. When are Texans going to learn to work together using 21st century networking and stop working against each other? Furthermore, a successful statewide Energy Leadership Council will serve as the paradigm for attacking other sectors where Texas enjoys a potential competitive advantage including the defense-industry sector and the medical/health sector.
  • Research parks: So tell me again why many of the regional innovation ecosystems in Texas don’t have the very essential component of a research park? To date, only Houston with its nascent UT Research Park – Science for Life and San Antonio with its more established Texas Research Park have research parks. It’s particularly curious that the Austin community doesn’t have a research park. And why is that? Inquiring minds would like to know. The Texas Foundation for Innovative Communities has as one of its major goals the creation of a working group of leaders from each of our regional innovation ecosystems to press forward on the issue of research parks in Texas. I applaud that effort.

Cooperation through communication and working towards common goals is essential for Texas to be competitive in the global arena. These five suggestions and recommendations are only the beginning in proceeding along that pathway. We live in a complex world in which highly-organized, highly-evolved, multiply-connected, and multi-layered entities have the competitive advantage. Balkanized bureaucracies that shut down undergraduate physics programs to maximize a single metric, or disconnected university systems and institutions that compete against each other are not the answer for Texas. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An Innovation Decoder Ring

By Keith McDowell

Everything has a beginning. For me, it began in the early 1950s as a young boy glued to that new fangled device called a television set and my favorite Saturday morning program, Captain Midnight. Sponsored by Ovaltine, the progenitor of powdered hot chocolate, Captain Midnight was an aviation serial containing fifteen episodes in which the intrepid hero continually saved the beautiful damsel in distress, Joyce, from the sinister scientist, Ivan Shark, while flying around in an airplane that looked like the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The plots were predictable and the characters one dimensional, but it didn’t matter. The series had what I cherished most: secret messages and a secret decoder ring.

The complete history of decoder rings and the inventor will likely never be known, but suffice it to say that they became popular starting in 1934 when Ovaltine sponsored the radio program Little Orphan Annie. A year later, fan club members could obtain a membership badge containing a cipher disk that allowed one to decipher secret messages posted during the radio shows. And, of course, Captain Midnight continued the tradition on television! Urban legend claims that the secret messages often said: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Hmm, maybe that explains my continuing addiction to hot chocolate!

But what have secret messages and decoder rings got to do with innovation in the Twenty-First Century? We fast forward to 2012 and a recent request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Quoting from an Associated Press article in the CBC News, we find that “The U.S. government is seeking software that can mine social media to predict everything from future terrorist attacks to foreign uprisings.” That’s right! Our government is seeking the latest incarnation of a decoder ring to ferret out secret messages from all that gibberish in the social media. And don’t be surprised in the next year or so when a sudden spike occurs in the sales of NestlĂ© Nesquik at the FBI.

Seriously, is this for real? Can we actually extract “terrorist” truth statements from a data mining decoder? And more important, do we really want Big Brother watching over us? The latter question is best left to other venues for debate, but the answer to the first question is simple. Data mining is real and growing exponentially as a tool of the commercial marketplace through connectivity to the Internet. It works, pure and simple! And I have no doubt that the FBI can and will make use of the technique. But can it be spoofed?

The Associated Press article makes clear that spoofing, both accidental and intentional, is part of the game. Intentional spoofing can be done through bots or encryption codes and likely many other ingenious techniques. Furthermore, evolution and adaptation guarantees that “terrorists” (including hackers) using social media will eventually morph into smart terrorists (hackers). Wow! Talk about fertile ground for innovation!

And then we have accidental or, perhaps better said, built-in spoofing of the input data strings, whether textual or numerical. How does one distinguish a joke from a truth statement? And as we all know from our study of logic, truth statements, number theory, and formal logic systems, there are always truth statements that exist outside any formal system – not to mention such brain twisters as “this sentence is false” or “I know that I know nothing at all.”  So how does one recognize or extract meaning from the logical equivalent of the proverbial dog chasing his own tail?

And, of course, data mining programs as decoder rings are nothing more than formal systems that churn out “theorems” or supposed truth statements from potentially “noisy” data input. In this regard, Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science has taken the game to new levels and formalized the process of truth generation from initial data strings using cellular automata. He addresses quite emphatically the issue of pattern recognition and its reliability or lack thereof. Goodness! Who would have thought that Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight could have initiated so much trouble? Perhaps we’ve all been drinking too much Ovaltine.

But the story doesn’t and shouldn’t end with the FBI and their search for terrorists. I propose that we create the ultimate decoder ring – the true “holy grail” that adventurers have long sought to find. Here is my proposition; it’s one that I’ve proposed elsewhere. We begin with the statement that “everything to be known is already known.” No, it’s not another brain twister! It’s a simple fact and based on the assumption that all knowledge can be coded as a textual or numerical string. Of course, textual truth or knowledge can be suitably converted into a numerical string as is done by the “bits” in every computer. We conclude, therefore, that all knowledge is encapsulated in one form or another by numbers. And even though some numbers are not computable to infinite precision, we in principle know everything there is to be known since all numbers are potentially available to us. There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem. We don’t have the decoder ring! We don’t know how to convert numbers or a string of bits into meaningful knowledge.

My grand challenge to the world of inventors, mathematicians, and software geeks is simple. Invent a decoder program that takes numbers as input and converts them into meaningful knowledge. It’s the ultimate meta-challenge and transcends the plebian request of the FBI. Think of the innovations that will emerge from the revealed truth! Entrepreneurs will dazzle the world as did Sir Isaac Newton who kept his invention of the calculus secret and used it to obtain results which he then proved by the more conventional techniques of his time.

Face the truth: he who owns the decoder program will rule the innovation world. And even if one doesn’t get to the ultimate decoder program, consider the spin-offs along the way including making the FBI happy and the potential for lucrative national security contracts. It’s not fiction. It’s Captain Midnight writ large! And it comes with a cup of Ovaltine and a plastic decoder ring.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reinventing Innovation in the Exploration of Space

By Keith McDowell

They called it “Tang” – a fruit-flavored breakfast drink popularized by astronauts in the 1960s for its use in the manned spaceflight program. While often touted as a creation of NASA, Tang was actually invented by William A. Mitchell at General Foods Corporation in 1957 and initially was just another unsuccessful attempt to market a new beverage. But for me, Tang became something else entirely different. After consuming vast quantities of Tang in the fall of 1982 and spring of 1983 in order to stay sufficiently hydrated during a Sabbatical year spent in the dry, high-altitude environment of Los Alamos, New Mexico, I returned to my home in South Carolina to experience on my first day back the most dreaded of all pains, a kidney stone. It wasn’t just any old stone, but a uric acid crystal created from my over-consumption of the Vitamin C in Tang. At least, that was the story from my urologist. And yes, during my several days spent in the hospital, I left my wife with the dual tasks of tending to two young sons and unpacking the moving boxes. Sometimes, Mother Nature has an amusing sense of timing, the ire of wives notwithstanding.

While Tang is just one of many examples of innovations either created or popularized by NASA that ultimately became commercially viable, the question of using space exploration as a platform for innovation continues as a major issue in America, especially as we emerge from our current economic and financial crisis. Newt Gingrich in particular exploited this debate for political gain recently in the Florida primaries when he stated on January 25 in Cocoa Beach that “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.” How real is his pledge? Is it lunacy and a form of howling at the moon? Or is it the harbinger of a new American thrust in manned space exploration with colonization of the moon and the planets as the goal? And how about innovation? Is his pledge the most effective use of space exploration to achieve innovations that lead to successes in the commercial marketplace?

President John F. Kennedy inspired America in 1961 when he pledged to put a man on the moon. And Neil Armstrong’s “a giant leap for mankind” was just that – a historic moment with many implications including the purely political statement by America of being the leader of the world and the subsequent economic flow down from the new technologies and innovations needed to power the Space Race. But the exploration of space as practiced in the latter part of the twentieth century was but a moment in the expanse of history. Thanks for the memories, NASA, but it’s time for a new story.

For many the story of space exploration is one of high adventure with fictional heroes such as Buck Rogers, James Tiberius Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Jean Luc Picard, Worf and Mr. Spock taking on the aliens that most Americans believe actually exist in the real world and visit us in their Unidentified Flying Objects. But sadly that sense of high adventure on a new frontier has become jaded through saturation of our senses by the sci-fi genre, whether movie – I still like the campy black and white versions from the 1950s, TV series, or book.

And who really cares anymore if we have a moon colony or if a human being steps onto the surface of the planet Mars? Been there and done that – sort of. Let’s face it. Space exploration is a hard sell in America right now for many reasons. But whether the thrill is gone, the cost in resources and capital is too great, or we have more presenting needs right here on Planet Earth including reducing poverty or addressing America’s civil infrastructure, the exploration of space is one of those grand challenges that must be addressed by humankind. The issue for Americans is what course should we as a nation take? Indeed,  is there a best path forward? I have a few observations in that regard.

Let’s begin with the question of manned versus unmanned spaceflight as a tool for exploration. The answer is simple. The human body didn’t evolve to endure the rigors of outer space. End of debate. I like drinking Tang, but there is a limit or I pay the price. Furthermore, the enormous cost of the support structure for maintaining the human body in outer space is out of all proportion to the benefit of having a sentient and observant person being present. And guess what! Computers will become sentient long before a human being ever sets foot on Mars. It’s a no-brainer. Space will be explored by an exponentially improving cadre of autonomous robotic devices capable of mimicking every human skill in exquisite detail including reasoning. Yes, let’s colonize the moon, not with humans, but with American robots. We’ll leave it to the Chinese to discover the futility of manning-up on the moon. Hmm, did someone just mention the term “cylon?”

Along with robotic exploration of our solar system –  including the use of a variety of space-borne telescopes, observation platforms, and deep-space probes, America should focus on earth orbit. While vacations circling the earth from above will not be realistic for many decades – if ever, we must continue to explore and to exploit the commercial potential of earth orbit. And yes, that includes continued experiments with putting man into space and the effects on the human body. It also includes a major effort to develop a cost-effective launch vehicle to move lots of mass into orbit out of the gravity well surrounding our planet. That’s a very different proposition from attempting to develop an all-in-one launch vehicle suitable for any and all purposes. Surely we’ve learned our lessons from the program to create a joint strike fighter aircraft!

So who should do the earth-orbit deed – private industry or government? Many believe that the only reason we don’t already have a suitable, privately-financed vehicle to insert mass (or people) into orbit is the fact that NASA controls the space around our planet. Folks, it’s time to rewrite that story and to find a way for government to work with private industry and with entrepreneurs. Who knows? Maybe a space port in New Mexico is just the right answer. It’s time to find out.

For as long as I continue to live, I will never forget the morning of September 9, 2006, when the space shuttle Atlantis was launched at 11:44:55 EDT on the STS-115 “Return to Assembly” mission. Standing as a guest of NASA on the upper deck of OSB II, a building next to launch control and with the absolute best view of the launch, I vigorously waved a small American flag and cheered heartedly as the earth shook and the thunderous sound of the lift-off assaulted my hearing. Choked with emotion, I watched one of the greatest spectacles anyone has ever been privileged to see. But I knew then as I know now, it was the end of an era.

America must rewrite its plan for the exploration of space. And it must be done with ruthless efficiency using what we now know about space exploration and space science and how to optimize the benefits, not with the hubris of sending man into space – whatever the reason – or the emotions of the moment. The exploration of space continues to be one of the grand challenges of our time as well as a major source for innovation. Instead of opting for a moon colony simply to outrace the Chinese to the bottom, let’s pledge to optimally reset the equation and to enjoy once again the fruits of a well-conceived adventure in space. Just don’t plan on drinking too much Tang along the way.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Candy Store

By Keith McDowell

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With all due respect to Santayana, I submit that a twenty-first century version suitable for those who inhabit the nether world of right-wing extremism should read as follows: those who pay no attention to the past condemn the future. And the easiest version of paying no attention to the past is simply to make one up. Or as Al Pacino said, “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

The best lie is one that sounds plausible, especially if it appeals to baser instincts. Here is one of my favorites: free markets produce innovation, not government planning. Really? In a recent article entitled A Tale of Two Energies, Josiah Neely of the Texas Public Policy Foundation made just that assertion. Fortunately, Robert Jensen presented a masterful refutation of this assertion in an article entitled The Plow and the iPhone: Conservative Fantasies About the Miracles of the Market. 

But sadly, Santayana was right. We seem condemned to repeat the endless cycle of demonstrating that “trickle-down” innovation from accumulated wealth rarely occurs or that “expansionary austerity” – translated as small government – doesn’t enhance the R&D that underpins innovation. Perhaps Friedrich Schiller best described this cyclic conundrum as follows: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.” Personally, I prefer the wisdom often found in “rock and roll” lyrics. Billy Preston comes to mind: “Nothin from nothin’ leaves nothin’; you gotta have somethin’, if you want to be with me” And what is that “somethin’?” Who is the me?

The “somethin’” is basic research and knowledge accumulated through scholarly activity founded on the scientific method and proven facts that drive innovation and the innovation ecosystem leading to commercial products, services and other “things” of value including informed governmental decision-making. The “me” you want to be with is global competition in the marketplace. But why choose basic research? For those who have forgotten the past or for those who deign to ignore it, Dr. Vannevar Bush in his seminal 1945 report, Science – The Endless Frontier, said it best in an excerpt from the first paragraph of the report:

New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes. … This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research.

Dr. Bush understood as have all successful leaders throughout the history of humankind that society through its government must build an innovation ecosystem in order to thrive. And at the core must be government funding. How did Dr. Bush come to these conclusions?

Prior to his report and World War II, basic research was funded mostly by gifts, endowments, foundations, and potentates as part of the job description for academicians. It was conducted by small groups and typically led by a single person, most often a male faculty member. Sometimes, research was a pastime or hobby for dilettantes. A systematic approach to the support of large-scale research did not exist and the flow-down of knowledge leading to innovations was often the province of “garage inventors.” World War II changed all that for American science and for American industry as the efficacy of technological advances and solutions became apparent to everyone, especially with the introduction of nuclear warfare. The need for a structured research and development enterprise to continue and to accelerate the wartime gains, principally for military applications, but also for the health of Americans, became a top priority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned Dr. Bush to review the situation and prepare a plan for America. That plan created the superpower we have today.

Even after the passage of sixty-seven years, it is instructive to review some of the main points from the Bush report:

·      The goals of the scientific and technological enterprise are national security, health, and the economy of the United States.
·       “Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind.”
·      “The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research.”
·      Government should aid in the development of scientific talent, “the real ceiling on our production of scientific knowledge.”
·      “With some notable exceptions, most research in industry and Government involves application of existing scientific knowledge to practical problems.”
·      “The Government is peculiarly fitted to perform certain functions, such as the coordination and support of broad programs on problems of great national importance.”
·      The Government must conduct military research during peacetime directed by a “permanent, independent, civilian-controlled organization” funded by Congress.
·      “In addition, ways should be found to cause the benefits of basic research to reach industries which do not utilize new scientific knowledge.”
·      The Government should form a permanent Science Advisory Board.
·      The Government should form a National Research Foundation to fund basic research.

With respect to trickle-down R&D or trickle-down innovations, Bush said the following:

Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory.

The Bush report is a marvelous and timeless document that set in motion a government plan and policy that has served America very well. And yes! It’s a government plan that led to our modern innovation system while making full use of the marketplace. And yes, it has been improved and made more relevant through new constructs such as use-driven research as proposed by Donald E. Stokes in his 1997 book Pasteur’s Quadrant and through Congressional studies such as Unlocking Our Future: Towards a New National Science Policy or the more recent National Academy report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Only a fool would deny the enormous success of our American system. And if you want more proof, read Go Forth And Innovate!

But I’ve saved the best story for my ending. What is “The Candy Store?”

In the 1980s I had the pleasure of serving at one of America’s premier research and development institutions, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). During that decade and even today, the question of “why basic research at the labs” was under debate. For some the assault on basic research was memorialized by the change in name from Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) to Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL was consistent with the naming convention for other labs, while LASL and the term “scientific” implied that Los Alamos was somehow better than other labs and the best place to be, a charge of arrogance and cowboy behavior often hurled at Los Alamos personnel to this day.

In the opinion of many this purported behavior and resulting culture grew from having too many personnel spending too much time with sandbox science, a euphemism for basic research. Congress and the federal agencies funding research at national laboratories were loath to fun sandbox science and wanted programmatic funding. But recognizing the importance of keeping the best personnel on board while accepting that some basic research was essential, a compromise was struck through the creation of the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The LDRD program functions as a tax on other programs to create a pool of funds to be used to fund internally worthy research projects chosen by an internal merit review process. The notion is that sandbox science continues at our national laboratories, but in a more directed manner consistent with the various missions of the labs. It has been enormously successful.

Our group at LANL was at the interface of basic and applied research with subsequent advanced technology development and deployment of systems and we benefited from the LDRD program. We well understood the need for targeted basic research and had first hand knowledge of how basic research informs and provides knowledge for subsequent development and innovation. And we jokingly called this fully stocked and replenishing storehouse of basic research or scientific knowledge ready for use by innovators “The Candy Store!”

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