A weekly advocacy letter from Mary Woolley: A picture is worth a thousand words

Mary Woolley

Dear Research Advocate,

A recent New Yorker cartoon speaks volumes. The scene is the local high school science fair, and the (captionless) image is of the winning entrant, surrounded by his (sic) disappointed brethren, who are scowling at the entrepreneur in their midst. The blue ribbon has been awarded to "How to Monetize Other Kids' Science Projects."  Is our cultural obsession with entrepreneurism good news? Several contemporary news items, as well as thought pieces, raise aspects of this question. This is more than a little relevant to the future of science and what we want from science.
It is now received wisdom that the economic value of science is responsible for half the growth of US GDP over the second half of the 20th century.  During those years, there wasn't much conversation about the economic impact of science per se, although many, many small businesses were formed to commercialize science -- my entrepreneurial father's business included. The nation was alive to the opportunity presented by science, though we didn't know so much then about the importance of adapting non-revenue-generating assets to generate revenue (the bursting of the dot-com bubble made this clear). "Monetizing," if the word was even used in the science community in the last century, meant creating better jobs and better futures,  for more and more of our citizenry. And it did.  In the last 15 or so years, Research!America, and many fellow advocates, have made the 'economic case' for public investment in science a key element of our case, calling attention to the consequences for the nation of failing to take the long view, including ceding economic prowess to other nations.
Recent commentaries including those of Eduardo Porter of The New York Times on May 19 and May 26 (the latter draws on the recent report by Research!America members Academy of Radiology Research and Battelle) and Vipal Monga, David Benoit and Theo Francis of The Wall Street Journal point out that it is not only the public sector that is failing to invest for the long term, but the private sector as well. Corporations are de-risking at every opportunity, looking to acquire innovation from the public sector when it is ripe for the picking.  But what happens when the innovation spigot runs dry because the guardians of the public sector dollar have unwittingly strangled it, either in the belief that research is best conducted in the private sector, or to contain public spending at all costs?  Porter observes that "...taxpayer-financed research can [and has, as he illustrates] generate large rewards down the road,"  but we haven't figured out how to monetize those rewards in a way that allows for robust repeat public reinvestment. It's time to have more conversation -- and then action -- about reversing an impending train wreck. 
While we won't cover all this territory in a call-in for members of the Research!Alliance a few days from now, we will focus on one key aspect of the innovation enterprise: intellectual property.  Please join us and former Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office David Kappos, on Monday, June 1st at 11:30 AM EDT. E-mail Ellie Dehoney at edehoney@researchamerica.org if you plan to join Monday’s call.

For an update on the groundswell of in-the-moment, innovation-related activity, please click here.



Mary Woolley

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Without research, there is no hope.
The Honorable Paul G. Rogers