Aneesh Chopra, who recently became the federal government's CTO has a very impressive track record in encouraging more governmental openness and also adopting new technologies. I think he was an excellent choice as CTO, though I'm always cautious until we get to see what actually is being done. Saul Hansell from the NY Times interviewed Chopra recently, where he laid out his basic priorities
, and they definitely sound
like steps in the right direction:
- Economic growth through innovation
- Addressing presidential priorities through innovation platforms
- Building the next-generation digital infrastructure
- Fostering a culture of open and innovative government
While those bullet points may sound a little vague, they certainly are the key things he should be focused on, and the rest of the article details some of the details of where he may be heading on all of those points, and it suggests that he's certainly going beyond the soundbite style thoughts found all too commonly in political circles these days. For example, when most politicians talk about economic growth through innovation, they usually mean just dumping more money into research programs or increasing the number of patents. But, as we've all seen, those don't necessarily serve as an accurate proxy for real innovation. Instead, Chopra wants to focus on looking at actual data
about how products are getting to market:
Rather than purely thinking about basic research, he said, the government should focus on investing in technologies that can be developed. A first step is to find ways to actually measure how much research is being commercialized.
"There is an implicit assumption that R.&D. investment will lead to job growth and economic success," he said. "The measurement question will lead us to think about, how do we begin to assess the outcomes."
It's great to see that he's skeptical of the common wisdom that R&D automatically leads to economic growth, but wants to dig deeper into the data to see what the numbers really mean. He's also hoping to learn from how different universities lead to commercialization:
Mr. Chopra noted that among universities, there is a wide range in how effective they are in commercializing the work of their laboratories. He wants to take the practices used by the most commercial of universities and spread them to other research facilities.
Again, this is good news. Many people falsely assume that things like the Bayh-Dole Act, which pushed universities to patent their research to drive commercialization was a good thing. But there's a growing
amount of research
suggesting that Bayh-Dole has actually harmed
research and the ability to commercialize
products. Hopefully, the data that Chopra is looking at takes that into account. Bayh-Dole caused many universities to set up "tech transfer" offices, but the vast majority of them are losing money -- in part because they've focused on the patents
rather than the actual steps to innovation. The universities that have focused on enabling innovation
rather than just collecting and licensing the most patents, have had the most success.
Hopefully, there is where Chopra will lead the government... but, as always, until we see it in action, it's worth being skeptical and watching closely. At this point, though, it's nice to see that he actually seems to be looking in the right direction.