Archive for the ‘innovation’ Category

Why investing in basic research pays – an interactive presentation from the Association of American Universities (AAU)

Science and Innovation Policy in the ‘Towards Recovery: Programme for a National Government 2011-2016’

The Programme is available here.

The major section dealing with science and innovation policy reads as follows (pp 9 – 10):

Innovation and Commercialisation
We will implement innovation and commercialisation policies as outlined below subject to cost benefit analysis.
• We will progressively implement the recommendations in the Trading and Investing in the Smart Economy Report
• We will support our indigenous digital game industry by reforming R&D supports available to the industry, setting aside funding from Innovation Fund Ireland for a seed capital scheme for Irish digital gaming start-ups, introduce a digital media component to Transition Year programmes and promote Ireland as digital gaming hub.
• We will develop Ireland as a ‘digital island’ and first-mover when it comes to information technology by ensuring more progress on e-Government and moving Government services online, investing in ICT in schools, and investing in information technology in the healthcare sector.
• We will make Ireland a leader in the emerging I.T. market of cloud computing by promoting greater use of cloud computing in the public sector, organising existing State supports for cloud computing into a package to promote Ireland as a progressive place for I.T. investment, establishing an expert group to address new security and
privacy issues arising from the use of cloud computing and reviewing the adequacy of current legislation and identify what steps need to be taken to ensure a supportive regulatory environment.
• We will develop a National Intellectual Property (IP) protocol to give predictability about the terms on which business can access IP created in Higher Education Institutions and the wider digital sector.

• We will promote and support investment in technology research, development and commercialisation beyond basic research supported by Science Foundation Ireland, as well as removing barriers to innovation and accelerate exploitation of new technologies.
• We will target key technology areas and sectors where innovation can be applied including but not limited to high value manufacturing, advanced materials, nanotechnology, bioscience, electronics, photonics and electrical systems and information and communication technology. We will also focus on the application of technological innovation in established sectors of the economy like energy generation and supply, transport, creative industries, high-value services and architecture and construction by identifying challenges, establishing priorities and developing strategies which specify necessary actions to transition to more innovative approach.
• We will promote Ireland’s full engagement with the ‘Innovative Union’ proposals issued by the European Commission in October 2010 as one of the seven flagship initiatives under EU2020 Strategy, with the specific aim of refocusing R&D and innovation policy on major challenges and at turning inventions into products.
• The critical gap between basic research promoted and funded by Science Foundation Ireland and third level institutions and its subsequent development into commercial opportunity for investors can only be closed by making new technologies ‘investment ready’. We will establish a network of Technology Research Centres focused on
applied technological research in specific areas, to be linked to appropriate highereducation institutions. The centres will accelerate exploitation of new technologies by providing infrastructure that bridges gap between research and technology commercialisation. We will initially establish 3 additional centres foccussing on
biotechnology, nanotechnology and high value manufacturing. Further centres from a number of other areas will be selected at a later time.
• We will support the development of an International Content Services Centre to make Ireland world leader in managing intellectual property.
• We will pioneer within the EU a model of ‘fair use’ in European Copyright Law, like in the USA, which effectively permits the use of portions of a copyrighted work so long as the normal economic exploitation of the originating work is not undermined. This will allow internet companies and other digital innovators to bring their services
to market.

Subject to a cost benefit analysis, we will amend the R&D tax credit regime to make it more attractive and accessible to smaller businesses, in the following ways:
• Companies with R&D expenditures of under €100,000 will be entitled to full tax credit on those entire expenditures as opposed to just the increment over the base year, with marginal relief for companies with expenditure just over €100,000.
• We will allow companies to offset the R&D credit against employers. PRSI as an alternative to corporation tax.
• To cut down on red tape in the applications process, companies in receipt of a Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) grant from one of the development agencies will be automatically deemed as entitled to the R&D tax credit.

Other relevant pieces:

Investment priorities will include education, health and science and technology (p. 16)

Undertake a full review of the Hunt and OECD reports into third level funding before end of 2011. Our goal is to introduce a funding system that will provide third level institutions with reliable funding but does not impact access for students (p 17)

Maths and science teaching at second level will be reformed, including making science a compulsory Junior Cert subject by 2014. Professional development for maths and science teachers will be prioritised. (p 40)

Third Level Reform (p 43)
We will review the recommendations of Hunt report on higher education. A reform of third level will be driven by the need to improve learning outcomes of undergraduate degree students, as well as providing high quality research.
We will initiate a time-limited audit of level 8 qualifications on offer and learning outcomes for graduates of these courses.
We will introduce radical reform in third level institutions to maximise existing funding, in particular reform of academic contracts and will encourage greater specialisation by educational institutions.
We support the relocation of DIT to Grangegorman as resources permit.
We will explore the establishment of a multi campus Technical University in the South East.
We will extend the remit of Ombudsman to third level institutions.
We will merge the existing accreditation authorities; National Qualifications Authority, FETAC and HETAC to increase transparency.

Rethinking Intellectual Property protection from Crooked Timber: ‘Information Feudalism’

January 29, 2011 2 comments

Information Feudalism — Crooked Timber.

Matt Yglesias writes:

A lot of our politics is about symbolism. And symbolically intellectual property represents itself in the contemporary United States as a kind of property—it’s right there in the name. But it’s better thought of as a kind of regulation. Patents and copyrights are modeled, economically, the same as you would model any state-created monopoly.I think the idea that intellectual property is property is too entrenched, at this point, for this to be an effective rhetorical strategy. Furthermore, rhetoric aside, philosophically the real breakthrough would be for people to realize that defending property rights is not tantamount to defending freedom. What strong IP protection generates is not a free market but something more like information feudalism: a market-unfriendly clusterfuck of fiefdoms and inescapably inefficient lord-vassal terms-of-service arrangements that any friend of freedom, in any ordinary sense, ought to look upon with disgust. The reason why libertarian rhetoric – defend property rights! – can underwrite feudalism, of all things, is that a certain sort of libertarianism, i.e. so-called propertarianism, really just plain is a form of feudalism. I’ve made the case at length.

More via link above. A good question is whether or not it is actually worth spending lots of time protecting IP in universities. Academics publish in peer-reviewed journals which are in turn gradually succumbing to open access (OA) trends and policies. OA is a bit of misnomer in the sense that even for the traditional academic journals, access to papers is available for a small fee (papers published in Nature are $32 each, for example); free-access might be a better term than open access. Lots of this work will also end in open access institutional repositories. Academic research is therefore already mostly open and freely available through peer-reviewed publication, and that academic IP in reality mostly comprises expertise, judgement, track record and know-how, not discrete inventions of new products (that might produce those so badly-wanted substantial revenue streams). Should universities spend so much time, money and effort on protecting IP? Maybe, but maybe not…

Mismeasuring scientific quality (and an argument in favour of diversity of measurement systems)

December 27, 2010 2 comments

There was a short piece here recently on the misuse of impact factors to measure scientific quality, and how this in turn leads to dependence on drugs like Sciagra™ and other dangerous variants such as Psyagra™ and Genagra™.

Here’s an interesting and important post from Michael Nielsen on the mismeasurement of science. The essence of his argument is straightforward: unidimensional reduction of a multidimensional variable set is going to lead to significant loss of important information (or at least that’s how I read it):

My argument … is essentially an argument against homogeneity in the evaluation of science: it’s not the use of metrics I’m objecting to, per se, rather it’s the idea that a relatively small number of metrics may become broadly influential. I shall argue that it’s much better if the system is very diverse, with all sorts of different ways being used to evaluate science. Crucially, my argument is independent of the details of what metrics are being broadly adopted: no matter how well-designed a particular metric may be, we shall see that it would be better to use a more heterogeneous system.

Nielsen notes three problems with centralised metrics (this can be relying solely on a h-index, citations, publication counts, or whatever else you fancy):

Centralized metrics suppress cognitive diversity: Over the past decade the complexity theorist Scott Page and his collaborators have proved some remarkable results about the use of metrics to identify the “best” people to solve a problem (ref,ref).

Centralized metrics create perverse incentives: Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to encourage scientists to use YouTube videos as a way of sharing scientific results. The videos could, for example, be used as a way of explaining crucial-but-hard-to-verbally-describe details of experiments. To encourage the use of videos, the NSF announces that from now on they’d like grant applications to include viewing statistics for YouTube videos as a metric for the impact of prior research. Now, this proposal obviously has many problems, but for the sake of argument please just imagine it was being done. Suppose also that after this policy was implemented a new video service came online that was far better than YouTube. If the new service was good enough then people in the general consumer market would quickly switch to the new service. But even if the new service was far better than YouTube, most scientists – at least those with any interest in NSF funding – wouldn’t switch until the NSF changed its policy. Meanwhile, the NSF would have little reason to change their policy, until lots of scientists were using the new service. In short, this centralized metric would incentivize scientists to use inferior systems, and so inhibit them from using the best tools.

Centralized metrics misallocate resources: One of the causes of the financial crash of 2008 was a serious mistake made by rating agencies such as Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch. The mistake was to systematically underestimate the risk of investing in financial instruments derived from housing mortgages. Because so many investors relied on the rating agencies to make investment decisions, the erroneous ratings caused an enormous misallocation of capital, which propped up a bubble in the housing market. It was only after homeowners began to default on their mortgages in unusually large numbers that the market realized that the ratings agencies were mistaken, and the bubble collapsed. It’s easy to blame the rating agencies for this collapse, but this kind of misallocation of resources is inevitable in any system which relies on centralized decision-making. The reason is that any mistakes made at the central point, no matter how small, then spread and affect the entire system.

What of course is breath-taking is that scientists, who spend so much time devising sensitive measurements of complex phenomena, can sometimes suffer a bizarre cognitive pathology when it comes to how the quality of science itself should be measured.  The sudden rise of the h index is surely proof of that. Nothing can actually substitute for the hard work of actually reading the papers and judging their quality and creativity.  Grillner and colleagues recommend that “Minimally, we must forego using impact factors as a proxy for excellence and replace them with indepth analyses of the science produced by candidates for positions and grants. This requires more time and effort from senior scientists and cooperation from international communities, because not every country has the necessary expertise in all areas of science.” Nielsen makes a similar recommendation.

The Happy Planet index

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Something to play with over Christmas.


The questions on the following pages will ask you about where you live, your health, lifestyle, and how you feel about life. The answers you give are used to calculate your own personal score on the Happy Planet Index. How happy are you… and at what price to the environment?!

Three Views of Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist – tagline ‘ideas having sex’!

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Three Views of Matt Ridley.

Posted by David Boaz

Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor–and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication–that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today’s most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change.

The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself.

FWIW, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and a great counter to the pervasive misery-mongering rife. The tagline ‘ideas having sex’ is a great metaphor for the advancement of knowledge. Here is his TED talk – well worth watching.

Further on the (over)production of PhDs

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

PhD production as a process of self-discovery by Chris Blattman (post reproduced in full). See also this post. A different and less-depressing view of PhD (over)production.

There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings.

Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

From The Economist.

Many of the arguments are valid. But make two plausible assumptions and you get a different answer.

Assumption 1: Innovation, including academic research, is the fundamental driver of long term health, wealth and happiness for the human race. (The “including academic research” bit is the biggest leap.)

Assumption 2: Unfortunately it’s very difficult to say beforehand who will and who will not produce great, or even good, research. (Even after five years departments have trouble predicting which of their crop will excel.)

In this world, each extra PhD raises the chances of one more brilliant, world-changing idea. While hardly comforting to the thousands who toil without job prospects, the collective benefits just might outweigh all the individual misery.

The decision might be individually rational as well, especially if students are no better at predicting their success than their advisors (they probably aren’t).

(A similar analogy comes from Lant Pritchett, who points out that you need a system that produces an enormous number of terrible dance recitals to get the handful of sublime performers. The same logic applies, he argues, to development projects and policies.)

One counterpoint: Here is where I would expect to see overconfidence bias lead to oversupply (and few of the collective benefits thereof). So maybe we need a system that gives the least promising an easier out that saves face.