Monday, July 7, 2008

INNOVATION - A Scientist's Perspective

Approximately 50 executives from the worlds of technology & venture capital piled into the dining hall on June 30th to listen to Dr. Mark Drapeau speak about "innovation" and its sister topic, "STEM education."

With Dr. Drapeau's permission, the AeA Los Angeles Council is furnishing this insightful speech below:

I'm sure that all of you understand that what I'm going to talk about today is my own informed opinion, and not the official position nor policy of the U.S. government. And with that disclaimer, I want to tell you – that I really hate working in Washington, DC.

Washington is run by a CEO reporting to a 535-member Board of Directors. The worker bees of the city are an army of well-meaning 25 year olds often with little or no subject-matter expertise. The government is a Byzantine, reactive organization plagued by its self-imposed hierarchy. And because the federal government is itself not innovative, it may therefore not be very good at understanding the topic of innovation, or guiding it.

Innovation – and its sister topic, STEM education, is a topic that easily falls through the cracks. The Defense Department certainly innovated, but does relatively little to educate children in STEM topics; nor perhaps should it. The National Science Foundation mainly funds professors to do research. The National Institutes of Health in total represent effectively the largest teaching hospital in the country; their research is innovative, but little trickles down to children in their community. And what is the Department of Education doing? Honestly, I never hear a thing about them.

Is there a knowledge gap within the federal government about how innovation really happens? Maybe. But this is everyone's fault, in some sense. Innovation in the end is about creating products, but largely the federal government doesn't make products; it buys them. The military-industrial complex of which I am a part is a great example of this. So it may be fair to posit that after most of the research and discovery happens, people in the government wonder why it takes so long – and costs so much – to get a prototype or a finished product.

My colleague at National Defense University, Dr. Tim Coffey, head of the Naval Research Laboratory for many years, called these two parts of discovery the "prospecting" and "mining" phases in a 2005 paper (, where prospecting is largely the responsibility of the government and mining that of industry. Even the Defense Department's primary research arm, DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – can seem at times oblivious to this so-called "Valley of Death" between the prospecting and mining phases. Dr. Coffey suggests that we have perhaps gotten so caught up in the last 30 years of mining – including such inventions as RADAR, cell phones, and DNA fingerprinting – that we've forgotten about the prospecting for these things that happened in the 1950's and 60's. This 15-20 year prospecting, as a general rule, requires a long-term investment strategy by the government.

As I earlier suggested, part of the problem is due to the organization of Washington, DC, right down to fiscal years and annual budgets. A colleague working at the National Science Foundation said to me, "The lag time between fundamental idea and marketable product is usually longer than policymakers are willing to consider." While this is not slated to change anytime soon, one possible way to bridge this gap is through federal venture capital. Government-owned venture capital funds, like the intelligence community's In-Q-Tel ( or the USDA's former AARC may be a great hybrid strategy (government-owned, private appearance).

The official federal government strategy regarding innovation and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education comes from two places. One, the Executive Office of the President (EOP) has an office called the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, which heads up the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) (

Second, Congress has passed the related America COMPETES Act of 2007, where COMPETES is (believe it or not) an acronym for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science. The ACI concentrates on two things: One, education, and two, doubling basic research in the physical sciences. It proposes to strengthen science education and research, improve technological expertise, attract the world's best and brightest, and provide 21st century job training.

Doubling basic research in the physical sciences is largely an NSF, Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and Department of Commerce (DOC) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) matter. In fiscal year 2009 (FY09) the proposed effort will amount to a roughly 15% increase of $12 billion.

While innovation is indeed listed as a top priority of OSTP, this "investment in innovation-enabling research" will not necessarily help STEM education, nor do anything to inspire America's youth. What it will definitely do is fill the coffers of U.S. academic scientists, which is necessary to a point, of course. But I can say firmly that in my experience these professors care very little about pre-college STEM education, about capturing young children's minds with the excitement and wonderment of science and the natural world. However, we might consider whether some of this tremendous amount of money could be better spent.

Other parts of the ACI touch on this. One, "Math Now and Advanced Placement" involves better teacher training. Two, an "Adjunct Teacher Corps" proposes 30,000 new STEM teachers in America over eight years (about 75/state/year, or very roughly one per city). Three, "Attract the Best and Brightest" aims to reform immigration and maintain national security.

To me, this list seems incomplete and out of proportion with the relatively larger increase in research spending. In any case, right now (generally) Congress is debating funding for programs authorized in the COMPETES Act. There is a huge difference between authorization and appropriation in Washington (among other things, this leads to the notion of an "unfunded mandate"). You can affect this process.

One example I found was H.R. 4151 introduced by Rep. Sylvester Reyes (D-TX), which is the STEM Promotion Act of 2007. It proposed to fund advertising to encourage young Americans to enter the science and technology workforce. It was referred to the Labor/Education Committee and was there left for dead. I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about the workings of Congress, and perhaps the key points of this bill got folded into another one. But the point is that these are the kinds of bills that would greatly benefit folks like you who work in the high-tech industry.

This year on August 18-19, there will be a summit( at Oak Ridge in Tennessee about the ACI run by OSTP. The theme of the summit will be, "Science, Technology, and American Competitiveness: Progress and Direction Forward" (which seems so vague as to hardly be a theme). In general this will be a high-level meeting with numerous member of Congress and the Secretary of Education among the attendees.

About half the summit will be spent on STEM education:

  1. Women and minorities in STEM education – review of models of attracting and policy proposals
  2. K-12; Sparking student interest + teacher training – Gaps between states, races, and socioeconomic status; new models? New ideas?
  3. STEM post-secondary education – Are US universities graduating the right mix of skills and degrees in S&E?

What's wrong with this? In my opinion, more emphasis should be placed on efforts that get children excited about science at an early age. Frankly, the military and NASA have many "cool things" that can attract children to related careers, but there is very little publicity about this. But there are indeed encouraging government programs about STEM education "down in the trenches" if you will.

On my plane flight from Washington, DC to California, I sat next to a teacher from northern Virginia who had successfully applied to make her school one of about 150 NASA Explorer Schools (nationally). This is a great three-year plan that provides funds to allow schools to purchase research tools, interact with NASA (including a trip to Houston), and provide advanced training for teachers. The Department of Defense has similar programs; in fact, one of the offices I interviewed with when I came to Washington runs exactly these kinds of programs.

One very encouraging note these organizations are trying to use "Web 2.0" and "new media" to connect with audiences. Press conferences are given and military recruiting is done in virtual, online worlds. Just yesterday, I had a great talk with a Los Angeles-based computer game designer who has worked with the U.S. Army, for example. I hope that these trends carry over into STEM education.

An interesting anecdote about use of Web 2.0 social software tools involves the NASA Phoenix Mars Lander – which is Twittering live from Mars, so to speak. More people "follow" what the Phoenix says than almost anyone else on the system – currently over 26,000. For those of you not familiar with Twitter, it's like a cross between Instant Messaging and Blogging >>> or Micro-blogging. There are now even two Congressmen doing this: Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). Related to this, one of my personal initiatives at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) is called Social Software for Security, or S3.

(Update: Now the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – destined for the moon and still being constructed at NASA Goddard Space Center, is also Twittering in the first person @LRO_NASA. There are numerous other examples.)

Getting back to innovation, competitiveness, and STEM education, there is a recent report out of the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington that puts forth the idea of a National Innovation Foundation, or NIF. This NIF would in theory do for innovation what the NSF did for science and engineering research. The report suggests that an NIF would boost productivity, innovation, and growth. But what is perhaps disappointing about this well-intended proposal is that is focuses on universities, grants, and companies, with no serious mention of STEM education or the workforce ( In my opinion, as far as you the audience are concerned, this is a poor "Blueprint for American Prosperity".

Innovation is the heart of national competitiveness. But people in Washington can barely define what it is. And in many cases it is better to fight over something than get it off the table. But you have to be involved as well. You have to be in it to win it, as they say. Lobby your Congress and your President for more ways to influence STEM education in America. Attend OSTP's upcoming August summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Talk to people like me, scientists working on your behalf in Washington. Whether you fight for traditional things like school funding, or unconventional ideas like incorporating STEM knowledge into television and movies, business leaders like you can make a difference. Your difference can be local, or national – and both are important. Luckily you live in one of the most wonderful and progressive states in the country, California.

Thank you for your attention, and for allowing me to speak to you today.

About Dr. Mark Drapeau:

Dr. Drapeau is a fellow at the Department of Defense with expertise in the following:
  1. biotech influencing future militaries
  2. biology models/metaphors to defense problems
  3. strategic connections between the DoD and the interactive media/social networking community to benefit humanitarian operations.

Dr. Drapeau's broad background in life sciences helps with analysis of defense strategy. He has published research on many topics including genomics, neuroscience, ecology, and animal behavior. He has also penned many opinion/commentary articles on scientific research, science policy, and the intersection between life sciences and national security.

After the completion of his fellowship in September 2008, Dr. Drapeau plans to land a challenging strategy position in the business world (consulting, finance), drawing on his quantitative and technical skills as a scientist, his recent work as a defense strategist, and excellent communication skills.

Dr. Drapeau can be contacted at

No comments: