The May 23rd, 2011, issue of C&EN, pp 30-31, printed an article titled “Innovation Policy Urged for U.S.”.  The article addresses more than a few considerations regarding the matter of innovation aspirations in the US. You can read the article for yourself. It details some silliness about government programs meant to stimulate startup’s. 

Startups are always in need of money. Like the salmon’s struggle to swim past the grizzlies to the upstream breeding waters, the struggle for resources is part of the Darwinistic screening process.  The struggle for operating funds is a way of screening out weak management. The trouble is, entrepreneurs are often awful managers so good products and services may die for the wrong reason.  Investor money is always loaded with conditions, as any startup operator knows.

The article quotes Richard Bendis, president and CEO of the consulting firm Innovation America. To quote Bendis, “Major research universities are the primary drivers of the future economy and job growth, mostly through science and technology. Global economic competitiveness requires the confluence of scientific discovery and the enabling resources of government and industry.” 

Well, Ok. It’s hard to take him to task here. But the last sentence is gobbledygook. What government cannot provide is the motivation or gumption on the part of chemists to start a company. Chemists need to be exposed to entrepreneuralism well before the day they set out to hatch a startup.  The current course of study in the bachelors program at virtually any US college or university is proctored by faculty who almost without exception come from a purely academic background. They know nothing about “industry” other than the salaries are probably better.

As Bendis rightly states, “Major research universities are the primary drivers of the future economy and job growth, mostly through science and technology.”  But major research universities, with a few exceptions, are poorly equipped to find and train chemists to be the future captains of of industry. It is a culture problem. The structure of the university chemistry department is not constructed to groom anything but scholarship. The American Chemical Society certification is part of the problem. The ACS recognizes and endorses a particular kind of curriculum. Most all chemistry departments have secured this endorsement long ago.  While the curriculum defines the minimum standards for a degree in chemistry, it also has the effect of freezing out much real innovation or adaptability in the field.

Faculty with business or industrial backgrounds are largely deselected from joining the club, if for no other reason than publication rates. Industrial chemists rarely have the opportunity to publish their work in the normal spread of journals owing to IP restrictions.  I’ve been a part of  a few search committees and I know how it can go.

The main exception to my generalization is MIT. Whatever it is that MIT is doing to stimulate startups, it’s does it very well. They are practically a force of nature by themselves. I would argue that the Mojo that MIT plainly possesses has more to do with culture than policy.

And it’s not just chemistry faculty that have to adapt to a new endgame in the program. The matter of turning a program to applied science must necessarily involve deans and university presidents.  They will all want to have their say. In the end, to most presidents, getting in the top 25 of whatever group of schools they aspire to be in is what matters. And that involves keeping the enrollment numbers and the endowment figures up. That is how they are measured and that is what they will look after.

Putting out applied science oriented majors will involve considerable cultural change in the academy. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the academy is ready to embrace a real step towards the kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the aspirations expressed in the article in C&EN.  It is very difficult to be heard over the clucking in the academic henhouse.

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