Thinking about projects, small and big– (-1)

A fundamental concept in university research enterprise is the project.

In management-speak, the project is the key intangible asset created in research enterprise, the key form of NIPIA–“non-IP intangible asset.” A project is the soil in which the tubers of discovery get planted. A project persists and provides a point of collaboration in addition to that of personal relationships. A project as it drifts and bounces spins out new projects, unexpected ideas, gifts. A project is a form of NIPIA and an aggregator of NIPIA and IP alike. To have projects is to have a basis to consider an institutional role for technology transfer.

If I had the choice between a project and a patent, I would take the project any day. A project is like a lake. A patent is a dead fish.

Let’s then consider projects. Where does the idea to explore something come from? What recommends that someone work on something with diligence, attention, determination? That’s a key starting point, if not the key starting point. It’s not just that people make a show of exploring or experimenting. It’s that they find something to explore that carries insight. How to describe it? How to differentiate someone willing to take money to go through the motions, even fervently, even sincerely, because someone else approves from someone who decides that some endeavor is worth it, for the doing of it?

This, in its way, was Francis Bacon’s problem in the Novum Organon. Why do science? Bacon’s argument was that one does science for charitas, for the love of benefiting community, not for fame or wealth or even for the sake of science itself. Science historians argue that Bacon was just making this up to sound good and clear a space for royal approval of scientific messing around. But perhaps Bacon had more insight into the problem than those science historians.

Look at the situation, pre-1947. Folks at universities conducting research, with hardly a penny to support themselves, having to make a case to folks in industry, to wealthy patrons, or to scrape by as they can. Called to help the war effort, some of these people demonstrated that their insights, built from their work out in the netherlands, away from those things of such industrial importance that whole industry labs were already devoted to them, and away from what government administrators determined to be necessary for the advancement of government agency missions–and here, especially, the military–that their insights mattered. That the “free play of free intellects” (as Vannervar Bush had it)–and especially the free play of intellects that had to scrape by for support–explored the world more broadly and at the frontiers of science than did those embedded in industry or government laboratories. Bush proposed providing funding to those folks, hoping to keep them free to do more of their scraping by–but now with government support to expand and speed their efforts.

You see the problem, though. Put out seed in the winter for the wrens and you get squirrels, too. Perhaps more squirrels getting more seed than the wrens get. It’s easy to tell a squirrel from a wren, of course, but it’s not so easy to tell a squirrel-hearted researcher from a wren-hearted one. For all that, the squirrel-hearted researcher, wanting the funding more than the challenge or the result, might appear to be the better researcher to fund. When King Lear asks his daughters to play the game “who loves me best” as he considers how to divide his kingdom, the daughter who won’t play, Cordelia, plays best. When the government sets up subvention funding for basic research using a grant proposal competition, it asks roughly the same question, and it gets roughly the same behavior by way of response. Perhaps the people to fund are those that *don’t apply* for grants competitions!

Government grants have the effect of creating “sponsored projects”–that is, projects get created by the action of call for proposals, funded proposal, funding agreement with a university, university establishment of an account, and formal compliance with the funding agreement (including the little bit of formal compliance with the patent rights clause in the funding agreement–not that that clause is either complied with or enforced).  We have another of those unintended results of making funding available on a system from a bureaucracy–the stated goals become more important than the activity for which the goals have been proposed. University administrators report the amount of funding they receive, and the number of projects going at any one time, as if we should be impressed by these things and think “Wow, that university sure is great!” Of course, the amount of food consumed or the number of weights lifted at any one time does not make the athlete. Same for the university–the number of dollars and the number of projects are indeed a result of the expansion of federal funding for university research–and don’t mean anything at all with regard to discovery at the frontiers of science, let alone discovery that comes to have utility in some other endeavor.

The project, then, quite apart from the systematic methods of forming projects, captures the efforts of an investigator to pursue a course of activity to find something out, to discover. Projects do not have to be “research” based–they can be projects in a shop to make something rather than projects in a laboratory to measure or test something. Projects may be entirely thought-based–as in mathematics or history–examining artifacts and reasoning. The point is: when we encounter a project, especially one by a wren in winter, then we have come upon an important thing. Call it an “asset” (like calling a deer, say, “venison”) for management purposes. “How much venison would you say is in that forest?”

The formation of wren-based projects may be the single most important activity in a university environment. Such projects appear to be the most productive of new insights at the frontiers of science; such projects increase the variability, if not the volatility of investigation. Some may look totally goofy–imagine that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium, not by stress and spicy foods; or that continents float on a bed of magma and “drift”; or that if doctors just washed their hands after surgery before they attended to delivering babies, they wouldn’t kill the mothers via infection. Har, har. The wren-based inquiries outside the status quo of industry, government, and even established science were the ones that Vannevar Bush wanted more of. He just didn’t know how quite to get more seed to the wrens without having the squirrels take over, and the squirrels did take over, and have ridden the gravy train for sixty years. And we wonder about the lack of innovation from squirrel research.

In my experience, squirrel-based projects have much less likelihood of producing assets that anyone else cares about than do wren-based projects. That is, government funding counter-indicates technology transfer. If one were setting up a patent policy to deal with squirrels, one might indeed think it reasonable to adopt a compulsory, comprehensive institutional claim to own all things that administrators might call an “invention”–whether ownable or not. But if one were dealing with wrens and didn’t care about the squirrels, then one might adopt a very different policy, one that left the wrens alone, that did not think to entice them with a share of money from the upside in dealing in patent monopolies. One might in fact think of two policies–one for the squirrels that caged them with their seed supplies, and one for the wrens, that left them free to forage as they could. It’s just that administrators don’t generally care to distinguish wrens from squirrels and cover for this with the argument that it is inequitable to do so–it is unfair to the squirrels that the wrens should be free. And thus patent policy for squirrels becomes the “uniform” policy. Wrens need not apply–or thrive.

When I discuss freedom in research, a common form of rebuttal is that no one trusts squirrels to “do the right thing,” and thus a compulsory institutional invention ownership policy is necessary. Perhaps. But then there is no point in trying to make a compulsory policy based on distrust appear friendly or effective or virtuous. It’s a prison labor mindset, a plantation mindset, and whatever “good” comes of it is accidental and disgusting.

Thus, the primary challenge for technology transfer is how to help the wrens when they create projects. And how to do no harm to them in the process.

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