Research Enterprise Policy Issues: noisy work, quiet work

Let’s discuss practice around research, invention, and enterprise.

Let’s start distinguish quiet work and noisy work. When someone is doing unprovoked research on their own–in the proverbial laboratory (institutional) or garage (unaffiliated, gadgeteer, entrepreneur), their work tends to be quiet. Similarly, company-based research is also often kept quiet–researchers might not be allowed to get all public about what they are working on. Quiet research generally doesn’t get much publicity and doesn’t seek it out until those involved decide the time is right–they have enough of a discovery or data or product to support a claim that it is worth announcing it. Indeed, for company-based research, securities law has things to say about “forward-looking” statements, so companies have legal reasons to be circumspect about making claims regarding what their research might produce. If it is research, after all, what is to be produced is necessarily uncertain.

University administrators, unconstrained by such niceties as being careful to prevent reliance on statements about uncertain things, are much less restrained about making forward-looking statements about the great potential of research at their institutions to heal the sick, right social wrongs, supply us with energy, and stimulate our economy. In short, university administrators thrive on noisy research.

Noisy research often gets announced even before it has been started, like an expedition of blabbermouths setting out to discover gold in the Sahara. University administrators announce discoveries and inventions with press releases that present to the public “potential” as if it were fact. Publicly funded research is by its nature noisy. The areas of importance for research are announced. Proposals for research when funded become public. Progress reports are required, and other than holding back patentable subject matter long enough to file patent applications and accounting for classified research, the progress reports are public, too.

Noisy work, then, is a primary attribute of publicly funded research. To seek out public funding is to choose to do noisy work. One proposes work in an area that is already announced and noisy. What one proposes to do is reviewed and announced. One does the work by announcing progress along the way. Inventions are to be announced–via the patent system, if nothing else. The more federal funding, the more research work becomes noisy. The more noisy the work, with more federal funding chasing it (and vice versa), the more people take an interest, the more people and organizations that get involved, and the more lots of pieces of the work get claimed by those involved. Noisy work with funding means lots of people all chasing related, similar, competing data, discoveries, applications.

We may ask is this a good thing? Are we more likely to get discoveries from noisy work than quiet work? Are we going to look in the right places for things if we chase trendy publicly announced work or if we work in quiet, even if quiet takes more time? Noisy work needs to show results in short time frames–often a year or two, maybe three. SBIR grants, for instance are six months to a year for Phase 1, no more than two years for Phase 2. Noisy and fast. If one wants to get further federal grants, failure is not an option. Once one has announced what one will do (federal grants generally require proposals that specify a project and provide a detailed budget), then one had better do it. People I have worked with have said that they often have to collect data on the sly on one grant-funded project to set up a proposal for more grant-funded work. To paraphrase, “Often we have to have already done most of the work in order to write a competitive grant proposal that proposes to do the work.” This is a noisy work issue.

Quiet work may develop more slowly in one sense, but in another it may mature with greater sense of what is possible and how to go about it. One aspect of research that often gets set aside in policy depictions of “innovation process” and “from bench to bedside” is the wide range of variations and pathways that show up in work that is dealing with the unknown, and so is by its nature uncertain. People working on the frontiers of knowledge are not in a position to write proposals with budgets about what they will do any more than they can say in advance how they will win at a game that doesn’t have any rules. Quiet work allows ideas, pathways, variations, and applications to get worked out over time and with an eye for selecting things that have the best combination of results. When Karl Paul Link’s team figured out the chemical structure for the agent that caused cows eating moldy hay to bleed to death, they synthesized a hundred variations and set about looking at how these variations behaved. One of these variants became warfarin, initially a rat poison. But it was rather quiet work rather than noisy work.

From a policy perspective, then, we might put the proposition this way: if we see wonderful results from quiet work, then will we see better results by funding a bunch of noisy work in the same area? If quiet work has produced certain results, will noisy work in a different area then be expected to produce similar or better results?

University administrators uniformly call for more federal research funding for science and medicine. They almost never call for more federal research for, say, the humanities–you know, all that work with fluency in language. Humanities work is by and large still quiet work. People don’t announce–I’m drafting a new screen play for a movie set in a galaxy far, far away. They work quietly.

But when university administrators call for more federal research funding, they also implicitly call for more noisy work, less quiet work. Noisy work certainly gets administrators more money to work with–and to pay their salaries–and noisy work provides administrators with a basis to brag about institutional “excellence”–which in turn they hope leads to more noisy research work and to higher tuition. One does not encounter thoughtful discussion of whether more funding–and more noisy work–is perhaps not desirable. One doesn’t encounter discussions that would suggest that more funding might mean rather more expensive activity, more wasteful work, more duplication, or more people trying stake a claim in whatever it is that is trending as the way to get more funding. One doesn’t encounter discussions that place value on work that has taken place carefully over time, perhaps not with much external funding at all.

I once worked with a research scientist who was working on how it is that cells can sense when they don’t have the right amount of iron. Problem was, he was in an environmental toxicology department, not at a medical school or in a physiology department. And further, he worked for five years on the problem without publishing–though he made great progress and could lay out what he was finding on a white board when asked. When tenure review came around, he was so hosed–even though his research had significant results (even patentable inventions) for cancer treatments, he had not been sufficiently noisy, had not gotten enough noisy (federal) grants, and had not brought in grant money (for administrators). The standard that forced him out of research (at least in the U.S.) was a noisy standard, not one that looked at the quality of the work or the results.

How often do we miss opportunities to open up scientific or medical frontiers because we have conditioned ourselves to value noisy research over quiet research? Federal policy should open up a quiet channel–supporting research without the fanfare, without proposals, without demanding budgets or progress reports. A different sort of accountability. Federal funding can still also promote noisy work, of course. But federal policy should not suppress quiet work.

We will get to the IP consequences of noisy work.

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