Vice presidents for research beg for Directive 10-289.

Here’s a bit from the APLU/AAU fakographic on university technology transfer:

And here’s a bit from “‘Miracle machine of U.S. innovation is in danger,” a new op/ed by Kelvin Droegemeier and Daniel Reed. Droegemeier is the vice president for research at University of Oklahoma and Reed is vice president for research at the University of Iowa.

Pretty much the same text, patch-written. Apparently none of these wonderful things has been made possible by scientific or engineering research conducted in companies or by independent entrepreneurs and inventors.

There may be good arguments for maintaining federal funding for university research–but we don’t find them in Droegemeier and Reed’s article. Instead, we get strangeness, even deception. Perhaps these folks truly believe what they write–if so, then they should make it clear they are writing about their personal beliefs and not make it appear that they are discussing facts.

A long-standing argument is that government supported research will lead to discoveries that change our society. That’s the title of the APLU/AAU fakographic, too:

How Tech Transfer Transforms Society

But oddly, Droegemeier and Reed focus on for the value of spending research dollars in the economy:

In 2013, our Big Ten colleagues launched the UMETRICS project to quantify the direct impact of basic research on the economy. This project showed that federal investment in research stimulates the purchase of goods and services in both rural and urban areas and employs tens of thousands of workers.

The UMETRICS project is all about spending federal dollars as if they are pork–allocated to be spent. And UMETRICS finds that 70% of member university research money is spent out of state. Nice, but that has nothing to do with outcomes. It’s rather amazing that university administrators can spend $6m a year studying the “direct impact of basic research on the economy” and ignore the outcomes of the research. Droegemeier and Reed then slip from federal funding for university research to “science and technology” generally:

More broadly, science and technology have been responsible for more than half of all U.S. economic growth since World War II.

Maybe they have citations they aren’t revealing to well designed studies that document the role of “science and technology,” but federal funding for university research is a tiny little blip in the broader category of “science and technology.” But our authors want us just to believe:

This is an astounding return on a modest federal investment in basic research that continues to build over time.

Except, of course, our authors haven’t shown that the “return” on federal funding in “basic research” has much of anything to do with how “science and technology” contributes to the “growth” of the U.S. economy. While our authors make it appear that innumerable things we use each day arise from basic research, they cite nothing to show that this is indeed the case. Worse, they don’t show how it is federal funding of that basic research that’s crucial.

And what is this nationalistic concern that Droegemeier and Reed have about staying “ahead” of other nations in basic research?

Simply put, our country is losing ground rapidly to other nations. This decline is especially worrisome given the clear and convincing evidence that basic research investments are critical for growing our economy, developing medical treatments, ensuring our national security and improving our quality of life.

If basic research is the driver for innovation and all good things in society, wouldn’t we be ecstatic that other nations are contributing to the store of knowledge from which to draw? What difference does it make whether the U.S. spends more on basic research than does, say, China? If other nations are putting money into basic research, why not shift some federal funding to applied research, say, now that other countries are carrying some of the “basic” load? It would appear that Droegemeier and Reed want us to believe that basic research done in Brazil or France or Japan won’t help us. But their claims are nonsensical in the general case. If the argument is that new science will help us make better bombs and be better able to snoop on digital communications, fine. But that’s hardly the case for cures for cancer, for which there is no reason that we should have the cures but the Australians can’t, so we can lord it over them.

And our authors provide no evidence that “basic research investments” are all that relevant to “growing our economy.” We might “grow” our economy by, say, shifting federal funding to support renewing our built infrastructure–jobs in construction, for instance–rather than jobs for “basic researchers” at universities. Think about it. The federal government could replace one “basic researcher” at a university with maybe three construction workers. Where $4B in federal research might give jobs to 40,000 university types, that same money could fund 100,000 construction jobs that produce–all the time–things that we really will use. Which of these then better “grows” the economy?

As for the “technology” training, the university argument is a hoot. First, technology companies import their workers (such as the H1-B visa program) when they aren’t outsourcing their technical work. Second, universities are actively recruiting foreign students into technology and science degree programs. Nice for the foreign students, and nice for the universities, especially the public ones slurping up the non-resident tuition. But these three streams–imported workers, outsourced work, and trained foreign students–suggest that basic research conducted in the U.S. at universities has next to nothing to do with building a trained workforce for “our” economy. That trained work force is substantially foreign. Welcome, foreigners! Most of those of us here are immigrants or near immigrants. My grandparents were immigrants. That’s all good. But Droegemeier and Reed make it appear that somehow basic research leads to trained workforce for technology and science that will allow the U.S. to stay ahead of all those foreign countries. That’s a different thing altogether.

Now here’s the thing. Basic research can be important. But if it is, then why should we expect that only the federal government should fund that research? If basic research is critical, then surely companies will step up to fund more such research–except they haven’t been funding basic research and don’t appear to be ready to do so.

A compelling argument against maintaining federal funding for basic research at current levels comes from the NIH’s behavior when it received billions in economic stimulus money for research. What did the NIH do? It merely funded more worser research–the proposals that it otherwise would not have funded. Rather than choosing funding that might stimulate the economy, the NIH simply expanded its existing programs, creating more people on the “dole” as it were, and putting pressure on the university research infrastructure to manage the extra work. Work this situation in reverse: if the NIH’s budget is cut by, say, 18%, then the NIH would have to fund *better* research, with more focus, greater selectivity. Given that studies show that most publications in medical science are simply wrong and of the few that aren’t wrong, most are not helpful, it would appear that NIH, by reducing its funding for basic research would also reduce somewhat the truly bad science being reported. Of course, if NIH funding is just regional political pork to be spread around, then we don’t much care whether the published science is good or bad, or if there are discoveries, so long as universities have money to spend locally.

The critical thing for our authors is that no one make any decision that would affect “research and development”:

Balanced, predictable and stable funding for research and development — across all disciplines (the physical sciences, engineering, biomedicine, and the social and behavioral sciences) — is essential for the United States to remain a world leader in research and a translator of research outcomes into practical products and services that benefit all of our citizens.

Of course, our authors have conflated “research and development” funding with funding for “basic” research at universities. But more than that, our authors demand that everything stay the same, with no changes for any discipline. It’s something right out of Atlas Shrugged, no? Directive 10-289 and all. For heaven’s sake, keep things the way they are! Can’t you see that people depend on research spending?

The thing that our authors have not done is to show that federally funded basic research at universities has led to the “translation” of “research outcomes” into “practical products and services that benefit all of our citizens.” That’s a worthy sentiment, of course, but I’m not talking about the worthiness of intention. I’m talking about the translation practice. Universities won’t report their “outcomes” of that practice–claiming ownership of all inventions, obtaining patents, and refusing to release inventions generally in the hope that they can make a fortune through exclusive licenses. That practice, in general, is a disaster. Anything that makes it through that practice often does so in spite of it–and we are talking 1 invention in 200 at best. Most things don’t make it through. Of the few that do, and become important, most remain monopolies for two decades, gouging the public as it were, with university administrators celebrating their complicity in the business.

Even then, even if we were to argue that patent monopolies are a really good thing, and patent monopolies controlled by university administrators are even better, we still don’t have any connection between federal funding for basic research and those practical products and services that “benefit all of our citizens.” We might observe that university exclusive licensing practice ensure that whatever benefit there will be will be concentrated in the hands of whoever is favored with an exclusive license–and that’s rare in itself. We might also observe that there’s no good evidence that federal funding for university research has produced the “miracle machine” that our authors so value. Instead, we have a plantation system that institutionalizes all creative work and holds it for sale to speculative investors. Actual practice has almost nothing to do with the aspirations. We can attach aspirations to almost any nonsense. What matters, however, is practice leading to outcomes–both means and ends. Phronesis, if you will. The university fixation on exclusive patent licensing may be the single greatest deterrent to effective uptake of university-hosted research.

The “success” claims for university technology transfer are in fact merely cover for university administrators pitching for more federal funding for research. That the success claims are in fact fake does not matter much. What matters is that they aspire to something worthy–public benefit. But the success claims are fake. The actual data on outcomes is suppressed.  And if the outcomes are anything like what I have experienced on the inside of university patent licensing, then there’s no justification at all for federal funding for basic research based on technology transfer outcomes. There may be other justifications–political pork, say–but not based on outcomes in the form of beneficial products.

University patents on inventions made with federal support represent about 0.1% of all U.S. patents and about half of all university patents. University-originated commercial products represent approximately 0% of all new commercial products. University startup activity rounds to about 0. 1% of all startups. The economic impact of the outputs of this “miracle machine” rounds to about 0% of the U.S. economy. Basic research may be important, but not the way universities have come to control basic research. Federally funded basic research may be important as well. Vannevar Bush makes a compelling case for it. But not the form of basic research that federal agencies put out there. And it may well be that results from basic research can be appropriated to develop new products, companies, and even industries, but not with the dual monopoly, fragmented ownership, institutionally licensed technology transfer practice we have now. Perhaps the last thing we need is our own real version of Directive 10-289, aimed at preserving things the way they are.

I’ve discussed the problems at Oklahoma and Iowa in previous Research Enterprise articles:

Sooner or later, Oklahoma IP counsel might get it right about inventions

University of Iowa’s patent policy claims reduced to simple terms

Dealing with compulsory assignment, Part 2 (Iowa)

It’s understandable that two university vice presidents for research might want to preserve things just the way they are, if not always want more money for university research. But they have work to do to show that more money means better research, and especially that more federal money means better research, or even that better research results in more practical products and services that “benefit all of our citizens.” For that matter, they have work to do to show that less federal money for university research is actually a bad thing–it may, gasp, turn out that less federal money for university research is a net positive.

It may be that university spending of research dollars is less effective than spending those same dollars elsewhere, such as in pushing companies to create better products. It may be that the federal government could grow the economy (if that’s the thing) or at least stimulate it better by giving money away rather than funneling it through all the bothersome and wasteful apparatus of grants competitions, grants reviews, grants accounting, grants training, grants compliance, grants audits, grants reporting–and each little bit tricked out with policy, procedures, regulations, administration, oversight, planning, HR, PR, and reporting. I’m sure our authors would reject any such discussion, even while they might be happy to discuss what they don’t like about the current system of federal funding for university research.

It’s a miracle machine–as an aspiration. In practice, it’s federal pork. The general public, I think, understands the difference. Perhaps this is what vice presidents for research most fear–that the public will understand what the vice presidents for research don’t want to contemplate.

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