Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are We There Yet?

By Keith McDowell

Travel with children is so much fun. You never know when or where the next bathroom break will occur or the condition of the facilities – and I’ve seen some real doozies in my time! I personally like the suspense of waiting for the Cadillac graveyard on I-40 west of Amarillo, Texas, or the billboard build up for Clines Corners in New Mexico as one travels west on the same highway. Hold on, kids! Only 300 more miles to Indian tomahawks, tom-toms, and kachina dolls. What would we ever do without such life experiences?

In many ways, the history of humankind is not unlike a journey taken with children. You have to take the good with the bad and expect the unexpected.

For example, the Twentieth Century represented the rapid and accelerated culmination of centuries of progress to form the modern nation state. Driven by nationalism, religion, economic necessity and many other factors, warfare was the standard medium to achieve domination by one nation over another. While such global war in the traditional form has in large measure been contained and hopefully eliminated due to weapons of mass destruction, regional warfare continues. Civil society has broken down in Syria and the emergence of the Arab Spring has awakened new clashes in Africa and the Middle East. Global terrorism has brought forth the possibility of dirty bombs, disruption of vital infrastructure networks, and biological agents as real threats to humanity.

In the past, government programs to ameliorate the pressure for war or social disruption spun off significant innovations that fueled global competitiveness. The Internet and the modern information age are prime examples. Some would even argue as did Vannevar Bush in his famous report after World War II that the accelerated growth of science and technology over time has arisen principally from advancing the art and practice of warfare. Hopefully, we take a broader view to global competition these days!

But whatever one’s views as to the reasons and the forces driving innovation on the grand scale, it seems clear that such innovations arise from attacking the major issues facing humanity. So, what are those issues as we pass through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century? Has anyone identified the grand challenges facing us?

Interestingly, such an accounting was generated by Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley at Rice University before his untimely death. I reproduce his list as follows:

·      Energy
·      Water
·      Food
·      Environment
·      Poverty
·      Terrorism & War
·      Disease
·      Education
·      Democracy
·      Population

Smalley was passionate about the need for society to take on these grand challenges in a big way and I agree with him. Whether you accept this particular parsing or not, we can all agree that attacking these issues is essential for the betterment of civilization.

Are we there yet?

Sadly, no! And if anything, we appear to be regressing as major components of society, including many in leadership roles, are in denial of the basic facts associated with each of these issues. Even worse, disinformation to achieve self-advancement has become an accepted practice, especially by politicians.

Take “energy” for example. As I’ve previously written, the “energy problem” – or better said, the “fuel problem” – is technologically a solved problem. It’s called solar energy. Yes, we need innovations to improve the price curve and, yes, we need a smart distribution grid system, but solar energy is capable of satisfying all of our demand for electricity and potentially all of our demand for transportation fuel. Not unlike the electrification of America or the build-out of the interstate highway system, it’s only a matter of engaging the American will power to get it done that holds us back from achieving a solar economy. Of course, our mulish insistence on subsidizing and sustaining past all bounds the oil and gas sector doesn’t help.

And what about the environment as represented by human-driven global climate change, or the insistence of some to frack our way to polluting our ground-water supply, or the chant of “drill baby drill?” Ignoring the environment on such a global scale is guaranteed to provide future generations with a reduced standard of living and to saddle our children with a doozy of a rest stop on their journey through life.

Are we there yet?

Just as children hector their parents with this repetitive question, we as citizens need to hector our political leaders and remind them that there are major issues to be addressed. Dysfunctional behavior in Washington and in our state capitals is simply not acceptable.

This morning, I voted early for President Obama. Such a vote in Texas will have no impact and is merely a statement of my own strongly held personal preference. I urge each of you to vote. And I urge you to continue asking the rhetorical question:

Are we there yet?

Friday, October 12, 2012

See You Later, Alligator" - Or Maybe Not

By Keith McDowell

The 1950s heralded the outbreak of over a half-century of spectacular innovations by America’s best and brightest including the creation of an innovation ecosystem second to none – not to mention the invention of rock and roll music. By any measure, the United States became the dominant world power as a nation driven by innovation. So say the pundits and so say our nation’s leaders.

And at the core of that success was a social contract whereby the federal government funded basic research and discovery as the source of new ideas leading to those innovations, principally at state-supported and private research universities. So why is it that many in America are in denial of this basic truth? Why is it that American universities must once again defend a strategy that has been the envy of the world?

For those of you not paying attention, we as citizens have yet another tome to digest entitled Research Universities and The Future of America. Commissioned by Senators Lamar Alexander and Barbara Mikulski and U.S. Representatives Bart Gordon and Ralph Hall, the National Academies was asked to assess the competitive position of American research universities and to propose the top ten actions that our nation should undertake. This report is the result of that study. And yes, I read the whole thing including the Appendices … well, maybe not EVERY word.

Like its many predecessors, the report documents the case for American research universities as being at risk. Here are just a few of the issues.

·      Significant decline in state support of public universities leading to troubling tuition increases, calls for cost containment and efficiency, attempts to squeeze more out of intellectual property and technology commercialization, privatization of public universities, and a host of other cure-all revenue concepts, but with the underlying premise that federal dollars cannot replace state dollars.
·      Unstable and flattened federal funding for research.
·      Deterioration of endowments.
·      Global competition with competitors a mouse click away leading to “the Death of Distance.”
·      Failure to produce graduates matched to both national and business interests and with the proper mix of skill sets and capabilities.
·      Changing national demographics and relationships with industry as well as rapidly evolving technologies.
·      Dismantling of industrial R&D laboratories.
·      The required size and shortened time scale of modern research.

No one doubts that America needs a national strategy for education and research. And no one doubts that we need targeted national goals and grand challenges. The report addresses these points by first establishing five guiding principles that I paraphrase as follows:

·      Balanced set of commitments by all partners and stakeholders
·      Matching requirements
·      Flexibility
·      Long-term effort commitment
·      Support for comprehensive nature of research universities

Based on these principles, the report recommends ten action items to be undertaken by all of the stakeholders. I simplify and paraphrase these recommendations as follows:

1.     Stable and effective policies, practices, and funding for university performed R&D and graduate education.
2.     Autonomy to respond with agility coupled with a restoration of state appropriations.
3.     Partnering for innovation through stakeholder connections, tax incentives, technology commercialization, and targeted strategic workforce degree programs.
4.     Cost effective and lean university management through increased productivity – a variant of the “more for less” approach – using agreed upon outcome measures.
5.     “Strategic Investment Program” focused on endowed chairs – particularly for young faculty – as well as research infrastructure and capacity building cognizant of national and business interests.
6.     Full cost recovery for research.
7.     Optimal regulatory environment including harmonization across agencies and the use of best practices versus a compliance-driven approach.
8.     America’s best and brightest attracted to viable career and national interest focused graduate programs.
9.     Inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities.
10.  Participation of international students and scholars.

As always, the devil is in the details, but I applaud the effort put forth by the National Academies in producing this report, even though I question some of its points. It is a worthy defense of American research universities and their role in the social contract that has produced our great nation. The recommendations should be immediately acted upon by all of the stakeholders and, most especially, by Congress.  And in the past, they would have been, but no more. Instead, this report is already gathering dust on the shelves of history, quickly forgotten and unlikely to have any impact whatsoever.

Sadly, the American Dream that bloomed in the Twentieth Century has become a bubble ready to be burst by the pointed barbs of those who simply don’t get it and by those who would vote against their own best interests. And as Bill Haley aptly crooned, “After while, crocodile!”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

So, You Want to be a Research VP?

By Keith McDowell

Slicing and dicing with the newest bladed innovation guaranteed to achieve the perfect cut are a staple of television commercials, usually embellished by a fast talking huckster with a nasal New York accent. And if you purchase their $19.99 product in the next ten minutes, they’ll throw in the Ginzu knife for free. But wait! They are going to double their offer and give you TWO choppers for the extra low price of $19.99. What a deal!

Of course, slicing and dicing isn’t limited to the preparation of food. It’s a technique we use all the time to deconstruct various human endeavors into their component elements, typically to create the latest and greatest strategic plan. Mechanical gadgets are replaced by “instruments” and “planning techniques” sold to us by consultants who guarantee us an optimal strategic plan as the output instead of the perfect chopped salad. And they throw in the vinaigrette sauce for free.

Take, for example, the research enterprise at most American universities. Exactly what is it that a newly minted vice president for research must do to propel himself and his university research program to the cutting edge? Is there a recipe for success?

Guess what! First, you have to take the ingredients that you’ve been given, slice and dice, and then reform them into the perfect salad, otherwise known as your strategic plan. Looks count just as much as the taste.

And now for the Ginzu knife! For free, I’m going to throw in my own version of a sliced and diced research enterprise at a university. It’s missing the filler words such as “increase, expand, accelerate, enhance, and promote” since those are just spices chosen to suit one’s particular taste buds. It’s also missing all those words from the planning lexicon such as strategic, tactical, vision, mission, input, output, outcome, objective, goal and metric since, as Bob Dylan sang in Subterranean Homesick Blues, “Get jailed, jump bail, join the Army if you failed.”


·         Student research programs – Honors College
·         Training in grantsmanship, compliance, and …
·         Public relations through reports, press releases, publications – online research magazine
·         National, regional, and campus honorary research awards starting with Nobel Prize
·         Advancement of under-represented minorities
·         Non-tenured research faculty track
·         Research Centers of Excellence – Council of Center Directors


·         Internal faculty research grants
·         Data-mining for targeted strategic focus and research areas
·         Funding agency courtship
·         Travel grants for faculty visits to federal agencies
·         Grant writing service
·         Service as referees, reviewers and panelists
·         Targeted faculty hires with startup packages
·         Research facilities and equipment
·         Non-research sponsored programs – instructional grants
·         State and Congressional actions – earmarks
·         Assessment and ranking

Engagement for Service and Competition

·         Technology commercialization through IP disclosure, technology transfer, and marketing
·         Startup company and technology incubator
·         Venture capital – SBIR/STTR program
·         Regional innovation center
·         Research park
·         Special research facility service center
·         Student and faculty entrepreneurship programs
·         Workforce development
·         Economic development
·         Public-Private partnerships and alliances
·         Networking for global competitiveness – National labs, industry, AUTM, LES, NCET2, UIDP
·         Research foundation


·         Sponsored programs and grants management
·         Compliance
·         Policy and procedures
·         Web-enabled IT Services
·         Research foundation
·         Networking – COGR, FDP, NCURA

So, do you really want to be a research vice president responsible for all of this activity? If so, turn to the cooking channel on your television set. You might actually learn something useful.