Friday, August 31, 2012

Atta Person?

By Keith McDowell

Bonuses! Everybody wants one. Few get them. Mostly they go to those special employees who boost a company’s bottom line – otherwise know as making money. It’s a simple game. No money – no bonus! And in the commercial business world, making money is the prime and only reason for continued existence, notwithstanding those subsidized businesses that are paid to serve the greater good and general welfare of America – defense industries being an example.

So why would a non-profit entity such as a university pay bonuses for meeting a smorgasbord of metrics tied to their complex multi-dimensional mission space? And why only the president – the least likely person to have any real affect on the metrics? Oh, but the presidents might leave to take a highly-paid CEO position in the business world goes the argument of The University of Texas System who recently created just such a bonus policy. Nonsense! Bonuses really only work in a world where making money is the game, not in a world where educating our children, searching for new knowledge through discovery, and engaging our local communities are the principal mission components.

Ignoring for the moment the old saw about “you become what you measure,” let’s take a hard look at one specific measure or metric to be used to disburse bonuses: increased funding for sponsored research.

What strategies might one employ to meet the metric? As every successful vice president for research at a university knows, such strategies breakdown nicely into two categories: macro-level and micro-level. A typical list of macro-level strategies with comments is as follows:

·      Build a modern research facility at a cost of $600 to $1,000 per square foot. Of course, if one is lucky, you might get 60% or so of the space as usable space, the rest going to utilities, hallways, and the like. But as pointed out in an editorial in Science, American universities have already overbuilt their research capacity with respect to any reasonable expectation of growth in the federal grant dollars.
·      Purchase cutting edge and very expensive equipment to attract grants by having a “unique” capability – nanotechnology clean-room facilities being a prime example.
·      Raid other university faculties for “stars.” This strategy is great for tenured or tenure-track faculty members since it increases mobility, but it also drives up the cost of doing business. And in a world of cost cutting – otherwise known as cost containment to the politically correct, there is an unintended consequence: the hiring of part-time faculty to drive down instructional costs.
·      Increase the graduate student population, especially high-quality students, via a number of strategies including enhanced stipends and fringe benefits, signing bonuses, scholarships and fellowships, and many other time-tested means. Research requires warm bodies in the laboratories independent of whether a STEM job awaits the graduates. Interestingly, this strategy has produced an oversupply of STEM workers – according to labor statistics and contrary to conventional wisdom – and led to a saturation of highly qualified, research-trained faculty at every level in our educational system.
·      Pursue an aggressive hiring policy at the front-end to attract the best tenure-track faculty from the available pool. Typically, this means a start-up package of at least $500,000 or more in many disciplines.
·      Form partnerships with other universities, national laboratories, and industry.
·      Engage in cluster hiring to obtain a critical mass of people and shared equipment.

To its credit, The University of Texas System through its Board of Regents in 2006 addressed the issue of research competitiveness in America as revealed by the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm and invested over $3 billion in such macro-level strategies. A comprehensive review of the initial success of that approach was presented to the Regents in 2009 and captured in a report entitled The Competitiveness Initiative of The University of Texas System. And it didn’t require a bonus for the presidents to achieve such results!

But let’s turn now to where most of the action occurs – at the micro-level. Here is a list of the typical strategies used to increase research funding.

·      Provide travel funding for faculty to visit federal funding agencies and program managers.
·      Provide internal seed grants, typically on the order of $5,000.
·      Provide faculty development through training and mentoring in grantsmanship.
·      Provide internal pre-review of proposals, the downside being the time and effort from senior faculty whose schedule is already fully subscribed.
·      Engage in repeat and multiple proposal submission to multiple agencies, although the federal agencies (especially NIH) are working to reduce such practices.
·      Pursue and develop technology commercialization through patents, technology transfer, entrepreneurial faculty and startups, and partnering with industry with a focus on increasing intellectual property revenues, industry sponsored research, and gifts and donations from successful entrepreneurs and industry.
·      Build a robust research administration infrastructure.
·      Create a research development infrastructure both to search out old and new funding sources and to “hot spot” emerging research frontiers. A research ecosystem capable of adaptation is the key.

I’ve only skimmed the surface and vastly oversimplified a complex undertaking, but suffice it to say that there truly is “nothing new under the sun” when it comes to the list of strategies, programs, and action items needed to increase research funding. Any group of research vice presidents could quickly flesh out my list. The reality is that everyone is already playing the game to the max with the amount of dollars invested being the principal discriminator as to success.

And as to success these days at increasing the amount of sponsored research funding, people should not hold their collective breath. The size of the pie isn’t growing much anymore and the game has become one of increasing market share.

So, are bonuses for university presidents a good strategy to increase sponsored research funding?  I think not! Frankly, the rather small amount of money involved would be much more effectively used and better spent at the micro-level where the real action occurs. I continue to believe that the focus and vision of a university should be on using such articulated strategies as I’ve mentioned to build “a culture of excellence in scholarly activity.”  That is what makes and keeps institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Oxford at the top of their game – not bonuses.

So, do I get a bonus for stating the obvious?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Is It Research for Hire?

By Keith McDowell

The iconic 1950s television program Have Gun, Will Travel starting Richard Boone as Paladin, a gunslinger ready and willing to exact his version of justice for a price, spawned many knockoff phrases aptly suited for good humor as well as a catchphrase on your next virtual business card. And in the minds of some, that’s exactly how modern research at universities is being both conducted and funded.

Take the case of Mark Regnerus, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin whose research on the children of gay parents has been roundly criticized and is being reviewed by the university under an accusation of scientific misconduct. Funded by the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, conservative and biased organizations according to some accounts, his research is being touted as a worst case scenario of “research for hire” or “you get what you pay for” – a wink and a nod being the appropriate medium for “closing the deal” in such cases, if you subscribe to conspiracy-based thinking.

In an excellent “Statesman In-Depth” article appearing in the 10 August 2012 edition of the Austin American-Statesman and entitled Study funding under scrutiny, Tara Merrigan provides a broad and important analysis of the Regnerus case citing both the history and practice of foundations funding research at universities. It is must read not available on the Internet, but it brings to light yet once again a recurring question of our times:

Does it matter what entity funds research at universities or what perspectives the people or support groups involved might have as to politics, religion, ethnicity, or any of the other boxes we like to check these days? 

And my unequivocal answer is – it depends! But on what is in the eye of the beholder.

Let’s begin with an easy case: funding of engineering research to find a simple bio-hazard delivery system by a foundation serving as a front group for Islamic terrorists. Yep. It makes for a good TV plot, but such funding is clearly a threat to national security and will be terminated.

How about funding from the U.S. Department of Defense? We certainly have plenty of that being done at universities. But what about the good old days of the 1950s when people in power created the concept of the Atomic Soldier and routinely irradiated the so-called volunteers during atmospheric nuclear testing? Does anyone doubt that related and follow-up research occurred in our universities? Does anyone doubt that similar activities continue today, especially when it comes to testing the efficacy of new vaccines using soldiers?

Of course, we don’t do classified research at universities – but wait, we do! We create entities separate from the university, but connected to the university and pass the money through them – the most notable game being University Research Centers (URC). We have one right here in Austin and it’s called the Applied Research Laboratory. Are you happy about that form of research for hire?

But let’s return specifically to foundations and swing to the other end of the spectrum and review the Gates Foundation. Their principal theme is world health, a seemingly benign one by any standard. What university could refuse research funding for such a worthy endeavor? But what if the research focuses on birth control as a means to confront disease in the ever-expanding world population? What if it focuses on gays and the spreading of AIDS throughout the general populace from politically sanctioned rape and sodomy of a conquered tribe by African militias? Are conservatives going to be happy about any of that research, no matter the findings?

And let’s examine the Michael J. Fox Foundation whose principal aim is to find a cure for Parkinson’s Disease. If stem-cell research must be funded to find a cure, should universities accept that money?

None of this is new as shown by the Atomic Soldier or, more recently, by the decades-long attempt to deal with funding from the tobacco industry and its related institutes and foundations. Indeed, an excellent and recent report by a group of research ethicists focused on the tobacco issue highlights many of the concerns and provides some potential remedies.

As I’ve shown with a few examples, the space of potential funding scenarios that gore someone’s ox is boundless to all intents and purposes. That’s because the issue is really not about overbuilt university research capacity or a drop in federal funding driving researchers to “have gun, will travel.” Even federal funding comes with an agenda, no matter the agency!

Nor is it really about money or research funding, even though money corrupts. So what is the real issue?

It’s about bad or biased research purposely done by a researcher to obtain something of value, whether a PI salary for the summer, tenure, promotion, relief from stress, satisfaction from malevolent behavior, or any of the other emoluments and rewards of a successful career. And it doesn’t matter whether the researcher resides at a university, a think-tank, a foundation, a government laboratory, or in industry. And most of all, it doesn’t matter the source of the funding, although overarching concerns such as national security or the general welfare of the nation can trump blanket acceptance of any and all funding.

America must maintain a healthy and diverse funding profile for university research if we are to remain globally competitive with emerging economies like China, South Korea, or Singapore. I personally am a strong supporter of such a diverse portfolio and believe that the URC mechanism is essential to our military capability, that proprietary research – the industry equivalent of classified research – is an important component of university innovation centers and the transfer of technology to industry for commercial advantage, and that foundation support of targeted research is critical to the public wellbeing, even if it makes some people unhappy. I’m not suggesting that universities become either insensitive to public opinion on a given research issue or cater to every whim including the exclusion of funding from the tobacco industry. Instead, we must keep our focus on continually refining our understanding of misconduct in research, improving our process for detecting and dealing with it, and educating our faculty as to the reality and consequences of such misconduct.

Bad or biased research will be and always has been eventually uncovered and revealed, even though there can be a price paid in the meantime. We don’t need to invent yet more bureaucracy or attempt to draw distinctions between “dirty” and “clean” funding or “dirty” and “clean” foundations. That’s a hopeless task that will never achieve closure. Our focus must be on continually refining the checks and balances we’ve already built into our research ecosystem.

Peer review is not perfect. Institutional Review Boards make mistakes. But we have a feedback process to deal with misconduct in research and that process works. As the Regnerus story at UT Austin unfolds, lessons will be learned. Penalties and appropriate disciplinary actions will be taken, if required by the facts. That’s as it should be.

But in the meantime, let’s not throw foundation support of university research under the bus simply because a specific case of intentional bias has potentially been revealed, even if the findings of the reported research cause one’s blood to boil. If that practice becomes the norm, we’ll have to throw out federal funding in order to avoid the next version of the Atomic Soldier!

Note: The question-mark image used in this blog was copied from an interesting website discussing informed consent in research ethics.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Hound of Higgsville

By Keith McDowell

A man or a woman?
Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

Needless to say, innovation would be elementary if the next new-new thing revealed itself with such ease to science supersleuths, but then that would take the fun out of the search! Sadly, the extended and expensive race to find the Higgs particle appears to be over, although much remains to be determined about its specific attributes and how they account for the concept we’ve come to know as “mass.” One can only hope that those nasty little details will reveal yet another set of clues for us to run to ground – hopefully without building yet another accelerator.

And then, of course, we have those true bastions of “mass” in the universe: dark matter and dark energy! Doesn’t it bother you and keep you awake at night to know that the vast majority of “mass” in the universe is effectively invisible to us displaying at best a smudged toeprint to the observant? Surely the Creator of all things has a better version of Photoshop capable of digital image enhancement while still keeping mere mortals on their collective toes? I sense a new mystery in the making as the search for clues to the dark side of existence takes over the science news media.

Speaking of which, whatever happened to the abominable snowman and Big Foot – not to mention the giant albino crocodile in the New York sewer system? Now those boys left a big footprint! And not to be outdone, UFOs continue to consume lots of airtime for those gullible enough to watch daytime and weekend TV. Or maybe some folks just don’t have anything else to do.

Personally, when it comes to mass, I recently experimented with a new innovation of the Wendy’s fast food chain. It’s called the Baconator! Arnold, what have they done to the world of “nators?” I punted and went for “Son of Baconator.” I’m not joking! They really have such a meal – although the large coke and fries make up for the calorie difference. There’s nothing dark and invisible about this mass. Likewise, there’s no mystery about where it will accumulate on my body.

And you have to have a round of applause or a shout out for NASA when it comes to Olympic timing! They scored a perfect “10” on placing the new Mars rover onto the red planet’s surface. Gee, you have to wonder if those geeks really planned that far ahead in order to carry out the landing to coincide with the final days of the Olympics? Suspicious minds want to know – or was it just the timing of orbital mechanics? And the sheer size of that rover ranks right there with the Baconator! Let’s hope “Curiosity” does a better job of extracting itself from the Martian sandpits than previous rovers.

So, will we find evidence of life on Mars? My old family dog Sparky recently whispered in my ear from the grave and told me to stay tuned on that one. His connections on the ethereal plain plan to spring a surprise on us. Sparky always had a flare for the unexpected in such matters.

I love a mystery! I love the search for clues to explain a mystery. And I’ve got a secret! So do many Americans. The intense interest in the pictures coming in from the Mars rover makes the case. And therein lies hope for the future of innovation in America.

Curiosity is aptly named. It’s the curious among us who will drive the search to solve both old and new mysteries – not innovators or entrepreneurs. But it’s the innovators and entrepreneurs who will exploit the resolution of those mysteries.

Inspector Gregory: You consider that to be important?
Holmes: Exceedingly so.
I: Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
H: To the curious incident of the dog in the night time.
I: The dog did nothing in the night time.
H: That was the curious incident.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

His Name Was Peter

By Keith McDowell

Some of us gently lift the accelerator pedal upon spotting a state highway patrol car hoping against hope that getting clocked at 76 mph with a radar gun in the new Texas 75-mph speed zones won’t get us pulled over. Others are oblivious and zip past with the pedal to the medal blazing along at over 80 mph. For them, speeding is perceived as a trivial offense against the rules of society – justified as their right against intrusion by government or, more often, as simply an in-your-face and arrogant behavior on their part.

Yet such episodes with law enforcement reflect both advances and innovations in technology including the radar gun and the dashboard radar detector as well as changes in culture and attitudes. Some would argue – and rightly so in my opinion – that little has changed on the cultural side of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. One of my most revered ancestors, Nathan Morgan, proves the case.

A soldier in the Revolutionary War and one of the founders of Morgan Township in Rowan County, North Carolina, Nathan was a plaintiff in a case brought before the Pleas and Quarter Sessions Court of Rowan County on 11 October 1804. According to a court document:

A special court called for the trial of negro Peter on the charges of burglary & attempting to commit a rape on the wife of Nathan Morgan …
Whereupon the court proceeded to examine testimony touching the Premises & the aforesaid Jury found the above named Peter Guilty of the aforesaid charges of burglary & attempting to commit a rape. To wit “the fact that the said Peter did in the night open the door of Nathan Morgan’s dwelling house by removing the latch of said door, with the intent to commit felony” – leaving the Court to adjudge, what was the law in such cases. Whereupon the court proceeded to pass sentence on the aforesaid negro Peter. That Peter be taken from hence to the place from whence he came & from thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until he be dead. And that the Sheriff of Rowan be directed to carry this sentence into effect on 27th day of October A.D. 1804 between the hours of twelve & four.

Was Peter truly guilty of a crime as alleged or was this just part of the cultural imperative of the “Old South” where slaves were automatically found guilty? And has anything changed given that our modern prisons are filled with minorities and the poor according to the demographics?

We’ve even made a sport out of ranking the worst prison innovations including casting an online ballot for one of the following: the abolishment of weekend lunches in Texas, gouging families by charging a $25 visitation fee in Arizona, and using robo-guards to protect prisoner well-being in South Korea. In Texas, the prison “bid’ness” and Texas Tough is the order of the day. And the Texas prison system costs lots of money, over $3 billion in 2012 or $21,390 annual cost per inmate.

In California, the effect of the correctional budget relative to the state budget for the University of California and California State University systems provides a stark contrast in priorities. In 1980 according to one source, the university systems budget was 10.4% of the total state budget and corrections was 2.9%. By 2011, it was 6.6% for university systems and 11.2% for corrections. Do we really need to put all those marijuana users and dealers in prison? Is it not time for America to try something different and legalize drugs, thereby moving funds to our educational and infrastructure sectors?

And what about technological innovations in our law enforcement and overall criminal justice system, notwithstanding radar guns and dashboard detectors? Surprisingly, a search on the Internet leaves one with the impression that the “detection and capture” front end to law enforcement is doing well along with our prison systems, but the courts and related judicial systems are merely creeping along.

At the front end, we have drones flying overhead and surveillance cameras in public areas raising the specter of a police state for many; data mining of our phone calls, emails, tweets, and texts by both businesses for commercial reasons and government under the auspices of the Patriot Act; and “hot-spotting” of criminal activity, to name a few.  It’s all part of a “smarter planet” according to IBM – tongue in cheek, of course.

At the back end in our prisons, we have an amazing array of new innovations. The Weapons and Non-Permitted Devices Detector (WANDD) is a “scanner that makes it easier to detect hidden makeshift weapons that violent inmates often fashion.” Note the culturally pejorative use of the adjective “violent” in the quote. For those who worry about “what a crazy criminal might do with” a needle, we have PharmaJet, a needle-free injection system for “medicating and immunizing sick inmates.” Wow! Those folks who created PharmJet must have really enjoyed the movie Demolition Man.

Cellphones cut both ways in a prison, but Wolfhound when “hidden beneath floors and inside walls” can detect calls and texts making it easy to confiscate such contraband. And then there are biometrics to control all kinds of access using eyes, fingerprints, fingernails and just about every other part of the human body. RFID tags including ones injected into a prisoner’s body permit instant access to the location of the tagged prisoner. And let’s not forget the Taser X12 which is “less lethal than a shotgun” and great for bringing crazy criminals and violent inmates under control without killing them.

You gotta luv it! Who would have guessed that such cultural and technological hype would surround the marketing of new innovations for prisons. By comparison, innovations in our courts and judicial system pale by comparison, but exist they do.

Other than the use of computers and information technology, court TV, ankle monitors and the like, the Center for Court Innovation is one example of an organization attempting to innovate and thereby improve the system. The business world is also on the scene, but their menu lacks panache and appears as a list of standard data and process management wonkdom.

For the legal scholars among us, one can debate the constitutionality of all these cultural and technological changes and innovations in our law enforcement and overall criminal justice system and whether they truly represent an advance in civilization, but one thing is certain: they will continue and people will make money and create jobs from them. We cannot forget this sector as we pursue the goal of innovation.

But for me, I come back to “negro Peter” and wonder what he might have thought about all this had he been given the opportunity. In the end, it’s all about people and their lives, not gadgets and parlor tricks.