The Faculty Stack, 4: Frontiers Science and Other Science

We are working toward the faculty stack. To get there, however, we need context. We started with Vannevar Bush’s problem–how to connect federal resources to the free play of free intellects to expand the frontiers of science. The new awareness gained then could be used by skunk works teams drawn out of institutional research–industry, government–to develop and demonstrate prototypes outside what institutions would set as their objectives or would be willing to fund. An authoritative person–CEO status, such as a Director of a national research foundation with solid tech credentials–could then present the prototype for institutional use.

The new science would come from unexpected places. Computer science might inform telecommunications. Atomic physics might inform medicine. Thus, there was little purpose in identifying social or industry or military areas of need and conducting research on them. Need is nice, but it is already embedded in an institutional matrix of expectation and plausibility. Some years ago, I was contacted by a technology scout working for the military. “I’d like to come out to the university for a visit,” he said. “Sure,” I responded, “what would you like to see?” “That’s the problem,” he replied. “If I tell you what I’m interested in, then you will show me stuff that’s like what I’m already thinking about. Show me what you don’t think I’m interested in.” And that’s what I did. End of day, he goes, “Whew, that just obsolesced our research in multiple areas. We will have to start over.”

For Bush, the drive to new science needed the “free play of free intellects.” People who could work free of institutionally endorsed contexts, whether that context was supplied by companies, by government, by social causes, or by established science. “Free” is seriously free. If innovation comes from outside an established order, as Benoît Godin argues, then “free” has to get one outside that established order. The paths institutions set for themselves and their research programs run on tiny strips of mental ground compared to the endless frontier posited by Bush. That’s true, too for federal research run through competitive grant proposals submitted in response to area calls for research.

If you don’t much care for the idea that free play of free intellect is an important contributor to the expansion of scientific frontiers–not just adding heaps and heaps of scientific reporting, but rather opening up new frontiers–then what follows might not matter. But let’s work through it and see where we end up.

Bush identified universities as the platform to house freely playing free intellects. Universities already had policy and practice set up to attract talented research folks and leave them alone to decide what they wanted to study. Policies on academic freedom assured faculty of freedom of research and freedom of publication and asserted that faculty retained all their Constitutional rights–and since the right to exclusive rights in their inventions for limited times is right there in the Constitution, you’d think Bush was right in focusing on universities, without having to concoct a “seductive lie.” Like most everything else, it hasn’t worked out that way for Bush, but we are here to re-examine the problem.

So money would flow from Congress to a national research foundation to be distributed to universities who would manage the money on behalf of the foundation to support researchers engaged in the expansion of scientific frontiers. Not mission-directed stuff. Not stuff that industry really, really wants. Not clinical trials. All that stuff could happen, too, but that’s not what Bush was looking at to expand scientific frontiers. It’s not what we are looking at, either.

And it’s here I’ll pause and point out how silly it is when economists lump all research expenditures into a bin and then try to work out a general relationship with economic growth and call that relationship “productivity” or some other abstraction. Sophisticated nonsense. Even priests of Baal have more relevant ideas.

One more point. We are not traveling the “linear model” here, either. There is not a progression from basic research to applied research to development to commercial product. One does not necessarily feed another, they don’t necessarily follow in sequence, and there’s nothing about the categories that precludes something new and even off-topic emerging at any point. The linear model is silly, too, and mostly nonsense. Humans are adaptable enough, however, that they can be made to play out a linear model of innovation. That’s an institutional thing, like “technology readiness levels.” Nothing better than TRIs to slow down opportunistic uses.

At the Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox classified new developments as “strategic” or “non-strategic.” If strategic, then Xerox took control, formed a new division, and worked to build strategic product–and mostly, stuff went there to die under the corporate burden of technology readiness levels. A huge institutional brand could not produce anything but the flashiest, feature-rich new product, or something like that. I’ve talked to researchers who worked at PARC and they say that they prayed that Xerox would find their work non-strategic and let them be free to develop it, use it, release it into the wild. Ethernet, the mouse, graphical user interfaces–stuff like that.

Steven Blank makes the point that a tech startup looks for “earlivangelist” customers–people who have a problem, know it, have tried something, and when they see what you are working on, they want it before you have finished it. That’s right, before “development” is completed, before there’s a “commercial product.”

So the linear model is an institutional mindset, but not necessarily how things happen or best happen or ought to happen. Basic science is not necessary first. Is not the starting point. Science may come later. Warfarin was used as a blood thinner for thirty years before science came up with an explanation of the mechanism at work. The science that discovered the compound that was killing cows wasn’t basic research–it was an agricultural investigation that traced the problem to a compound produced by molds in sweet clover hay. They didn’t save the cows and produced a hundred variants of the compound. Their thought was rodent poison, not a response to heart attacks. The sequence was not “basic science discovery of the mechanism by which blood is thinned, then applied to thinning blood, and developed into a commercial product to be sold as a blood thinner.” Rather, it was “investigation into cow deaths leads to class of compounds that thin cow blood, then used as a rat poison until a guy tries to commit suicide by taking a lot of it and they discover that they can reverse the effects and save him so that when a president of the United States has a heart attack while traveling, he gets the compound to thin his blood and there’s the clinical trial that makes the case. Developing mass produced versions and the like comes later.

The key thing here is that in expanding the frontiers of science, there’s really no way to move from what’s discovered to “applied research.” Again, it can be forced–institutions love to do this, calling it “management” or “value creation” and the like. But in the Bush model, new science does “sit on the shelf”–but the shelf of the mind, like a library that’s just added new books full of salacious scientific and technical reading. Those new books get pulled off the shelf when someone with a broad awareness of science is placed in a context to make something new, in a skunk works project. It’s the project that pulls in the new science via that someone who knows that the new science exists and thinks to pull it in and knows how to use it. Quantum mechanics in medicine, say. It is the project that pulls in the new science as needed, makes new combinations as needed. The project builds a prototype using industrial design and production ready tools where they can, to make it a rapid prototype. They field it before it is a commercial product. It may never become a commercial product. It may become a standard. It may be built and used locally by technologists, more like front porches than automobile tires. One goes to a store for tires, but one does not go to a store to buy a new front porch.

In Bush’s approach, there’s no linear model. There is an expansion of scientific knowledge that operates outside the established orders of institutions, governments, companies–and even outside established science and outside properly composed proposals for future research. Noodling about with lightning or copper wire windings or mechanisms to reduce inertial mass does not get better because one writes a proposal for research to disinterested technologists tasked with reviewing and ranking a couple hundred such proposals on a schedule. Skunk works–also parked outside the established orders–then draw on the new scientific frontiers along with lots of other stuff to create prototypes that the established orders couldn’t imagine, wouldn’t know how to make, and wouldn’t approve the expenditure to make if they had their way with it. The results of the skunk projects then are presented by authoritative people with status to people who would have reason to adopt the results, the prototype, the standard. Those people then do what they have to to mobilize organizations to use stuff, make products based on the stuff, improve it, version it, and all that.

Thus, the role for university research in all of this Bush model stuff is distinct from all the other research that a university might seek funding for. The stuff that matters is the research that expands scientific frontiers, and that research needs to be free from institutional controls, even down to fuss over “productivity” measured as publications or patents or any other such distraction. It’s difficult to make this point without running afoul of the great institutional distaste for anything that suggests that the big hearted institution has not got its policies and practices aligned with the greatest public benefit. But the implication of my point–and Bush’s insight–is just that. When it comes to expanding the frontiers of science, management folks and money folks have to let go, and have confidence in what people do, rather than fear that people will exploit their largesse and misuse money or misuse the time and just flop around doing nothing, scamming the system, being jerks, and generally wallowing in the lazy fun of being faculty. That’s the administrative fear behind university “ethics” policies, such as they are.

To get at Bush’s idea, then, we have to separate out work directed at advancing the frontiers of science from work that does other things, even delightful and potentially lucrative things. How ought this frontiers work be treated? Should it be conflated with everything else in a “uniform” policy? A uniform policy at the federal level of funding? A uniform policy at the university level? A uniform policy adopted by all universities so that there’s no choice even that would indicate where differing local contexts might lead to opportunities that a uniform policy would not only not support but also might actively suppress. “It’s not fair to treat some things differently than others, even if those things are different.”

Perhaps you think I’m joking or maybe I am just cranky. I once got into a discussion with a senior university administrator who was pissed that our IP team was selective in the projects we took on, and for those, used university policy in ways that the patent folks couldn’t figure out and didn’t want. It was unfair, he argued, that we used policy to give advantages to the people who chose to work with us (and we agreed). To be fair–this was the argument–we had to impose all the disadvantages of the bone-headed compulsory patent managers on everyone.

We were making the patent people and their dumpy fixation on exclusive licensing look bad, is what we were doing. People wanted to work with us, and they didn’t want to work with the patent people. We were unfairly competing with the patent people, and (so the claim was) taking work from them, lucrative work perhaps they worried, even patent work (we did patents, too, but used them differently–we didn’t use the term “license” so much, use “license” like “metastasis”–something you don’t want to have to say unless it is really necessary to say it). Our ROI over ten years was 3 to 1 and sometimes 6 to 1. A dollar in got you three dollars in services revenue backed by an IP position so it ran through the licensing policy as income but was booked against the services account until The ROI for the patent-focused group was 1 to 1. A dollar in got you a dollar in licensing revenue.

A uniform practice under policy was more important than being responsive to the goals and requirements of people doing interesting things. One part of me doesn’t understand how people can be so stupid. But institutions create their own forms of stupid wrapped in blankets of duty, consistency, institutional mission, status, sincerity, and self-survival.

For the Bush approach to work, to expand the frontiers of science using federal resources, everyone involved has to accept that the beneficiary of the support is going to be someone thinking for themselves and not for any institution, and going to be noodling and not proposing three years of work made to look plausible and relevant to institutional reviewers. To the administrative mind, all that sounds like a deliberate failure of proper diligence and the road to chaos and misused resources. Yes. But there are other descriptors and other ways in which noodling behaviors self-stabilize without the intervention of managerial wickednesses cast as “principles” (meaning, beyond debate) and “policies” (meaning only those with administrative power get to decide).

The free play of free intellects proposition then uses institutional resources to prevent the imposition of institutional controls. It’s rather like copyleft applied to living in an institution, a bill of rights for free play of free intellects. An oasis of noodling protected by administrative sand in a desert of administrative sand.

We can now turn to the faculty stack. There’s one for employment, and there’s one for the non-university, even non-contractual commitments that faculty may make. Both are in play, and there’s an institutional role for both, but it’s not what the institutional patent people behind current policies want it to be. What ought these requirements and commitments be, to advance frontier science at a university so that it is available to skunk works, potentially lots of them?


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