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Friday, December 17, 2010

A scientist to idolize? Penalize? Or incentivize?

I spent time recently thinking of the role of a scientist in today’s academia. Should he be revered and rewarded for simply what he is, with his Nobel prizes and titles he holds, or is he just an employee at a university whose well-being hinges on how well or badly he performs?

A debate is still going on in the U.S. regarding the right answer to the question. There’s a fact that seems to speak for itself. By giving their scientists the full and barely accountable reign over the university labs, with little or no stimulus to turn science into marketable products, University of Colorado has slipped from a leadership position in start-up creation to a mediocre one just above the 20th. In sharp contrast to it, by penalizing its professors and lab chiefs financially for not commercializing research results vigorously enough University of Utah has propelled itself from ranking 96th to number one in the U.S. for new start-ups. But if, for example, we speak of Russia, a very different culture, is this all so black and white? Is there a single answer to the above question?

Russia today faces an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, one of the greatest assets the Soviet Union and now the RF has built over the last 85 years is the scientific and academic foundations of this country, on which Russia can develop in the long run into an innovation economy.

On the other hand, the problem with this system is that it is consistently driven from the top down by macroinstructions under the political leadership of Russia to accomplish major goals.

This could generate huge amounts of resources dedicated to large-scale projects, enabling this country to accomplish great achievements. But today this resource needs to be shifted dramatically to adapt to a more market-driven, bottom-up type of structure so that professors, students, and individual labs and universities, are able to generate their own initiatives and ideas which can then percolate. 

So, how to change this structure of Russia’s major asset and in the process not to destroy the asset itself? In the U.S., the country has faced a similar set of problems but from a very different angle.

Traditionally, scientists were developing R&D and labs were getting federal support to do pure research, and very often business angels were close by those labs able to come in with their business experience and help promote commercialization strategies for new technologies.

The problem today is that new technologies are so sophisticated that business angels are not sure how to evaluate the market potential of any particular new technology, especially in some very advanced sectors. Therefore new creative mechanisms have been developed in the U.S., such as proof-of-concept centers, which can be used to promote commercialization.

At its root, though, there’s deeper change that needs to take place in the United States and, I think, in Russia, and that is to create specific incentives for universities, professors, students and labs to all become very market-driven. There should be a combination of factors.

In Russia there needs to develop a competitive attitude that can allow for university rankings based on specific key performance indicators (KPIs). For example: how many new start-ups are generated by any particular university? how many products are created? how many jobs are created? how many patents are issued? how much investment is attracted to add on investment into projects? There needs to be developed an assessment of KPIs not only for regions but also individual universities within the regions; how they compare to one another from region to region, and, going even deeper, how different professors and laboratories perform against one another in generating commercial ideas.

Of course, this idea in itself is rather complicated and will have many people supportive of and opposed to it. Any changes that can be made to the Academy of Sciences’ structure may prompt people established in their lives to resist those changes. But if Russia is to succeed in its development as an innovation economy, there definitely need to be motivation mechanisms created from budgetary and other means to incentivize professors and labs to think in terms of how to commercialize their products.

Setting such mechanisms means choosing different approaches to academia. If we look at the examples in the United States of different university systems, several universities have experimented with plans to increase laboratory budgets for those professors that are able to initiate a greater level of commercialization of their ideas. But the reverse is also true; for those professors and labs that fail to commercialize their products or develop any new commercialization strategies, their budgets are cut.

In Russia, I believe, there clearly needs to be a merit-based system of budget allocations for those labs and professors that are able to show the greatest results. There are always going to be certain sectors and certain priorities for the RF government, which may or may not be driven by commercial interests, but for those areas where commercialization into domestic or global markets is possible Russia should use every budgetary means to motivate its academia and research labs to think in terms of commercialization.

So, while there hardly is a single answer to the question of how to treat a scientist, this is clearly an area where both Russia and the U.S. share a common need to improve their commercialization strategies. That’s true, the U.S. has a head start by many years, or some say decades, but as technology changes so quickly being replaced by new technology, this means that Russia has every opportunity to catch up pretty fast.

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