On rediscovering wheels

By | November 6, 2013

In the latest entry in the “your federal government at work” sweepstakes, the US Commerce Department has just issued a fine new report entitled “The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University: Higher Education, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Focus.” As a result of extensive interviews with university, industry, and other folks, the good Commerce Department researchers have discovered that universities really do matter as a source of innovative ideas and products, and perhaps should even be encouraged to continue their efforts.

My immediate response on hearing of this effort was, as I commented on a Chronicle of Higher Education blog announcing it, that it seemed to “…rank right up there with Captain Reynaud’s “discovery of gambling at Rick’s Café” in its stunning obviousness. There is no doubt that each generation needs to rediscover territory pioneered by previous generations, and usually to drape it in new and distinctive clothing. But it does seem a shame that these rediscoveries can only establish their value by claiming to have found something new and unique.

I would like to share with you the rest of my comments to CHE on this report, because while I think it’s important to have the importance of universities as centers of innovative ideas reinforced, it’s also important to acknowledge that this is hardly a new or unusual role. Here’s what I said:

“It seems insultingly patronizing for the Commerce Department to have suddenly discovered what both science and technology-oriented people all around the federal government, in state and local governments, universities, nonprofit institutions, businesses, and a lot of other places have known and worked with for 60 to 70 years – universities with their programs of research generate a lot of amazing new ideas, many of which have useful commercial applications that have transformed our society. Most of these transformations have made our lives better; a few have had less benign consequences. The interactions between universities and all these other social actors have been complex, unpredictable, and to a large degree unstoppable.

Transfer of ideas among all these actors is first and foremost a transfer of people and their capabilities; media and other information resources supplement and reinforce idea sharing, but seldom drive it. There is no central coordination for this effort; indeed, none would be possible, since the sheer number of actors and institutions precludes the concentration of power that would be needed to steer this massive enterprise. There is an overall ethic of progress through innovation and change, although this is by no means universally accepted or applied. Changes to society result from sociotechnical adaptation, in which technology and the social arrangements that enable its use are constantly adjusted to reinforce each other.

When I was at the National Science Foundation back in the 1980s, we had a very active program of university/industry cooperation implemented through a variety of programs and centers. A number of evaluation studies and reports were developed at that time, and many of the ideas tested through NSF initiatives were in fact diffused throughout the federal government at that time. It is perhaps a testimony to the efficacy of those initiatives that they became so well embedded into government, university, and industry systems that they needed to be rediscovered now by the Commerce Department.

I suppose that we should be happy that the good people at Commerce have discovered all this; it’s certainly better than thinking that universities don’t matter, which seems to be a thought pattern increasingly common among some state legislators and more closed-minded members of Congress. After all, even Captain Reynaud was allowed to collect his winnings. But it does seem a bit of a shame that all this has to be proclaimed as new and shiny, when it’s been ticking away and changing lives for a long time.”

I apologize for recycling so much prose, but I don’t think I could’ve improved much on it on short notice. As I said earlier, I think it’s great to have the role of universities recognized at this point in our national dialogue, and I commend the Commerce Department for their efforts. But I also think it is important that we recognize the long-term interactions that have carried us so far, and that must form the foundation for any revitalized program of publicly supported innovation through research and development.