National Science Foundation

Innovation Corps

I recently wrote a post about entrepreneurship in science and received a lot of feedback. While most people agreed that “with the overabundance of highly educated and specialized STEM workers, we are going to need to be able to fabricate our own jobs”, there was a wide range of ideas on how much government involvement should be in place to help support entrepreneurial scientists. One of our followers shared information on an intensive eight week government program funded by the NSF (Innovation Corps) that is the brain child of Errol Arkilic, a program director at NSF, and a 2012 Harvard Business Review “Master of Innovation” Steve Blank. I found it intriguing and wanted to pass it along to you. The pilot classes of Innovation Corps seem to have potential and be set up to give you real life experience using your own creations. Everyone in the program is part of a 3 person teams…one NSF funded PI and his graduate student or postdoc who are appointed as the “Entrepreneurial Lead.” The third member of each group is a mentor with previous start-up experience. As someone who would prefer that the government paid down debt rather than fund entrepreneurs, this program makes my mouth water. And it got me thinking…wouldn’t a version of this, maybe combined with an introduction to accounting be a great addition to the PhD curriculum? Even if you didn’t go the entrepreneur route, the accounting/financial aspect would be beneficial both in academics and industry. After all, a team leader is not only responsible for obtaining grant funding, but also managing (salaries, supplies, conferences) that funding throughout the duration of the grant.

What do you think? Would you welcome the addition of a class focused on entrepreneurship, innovation, and accounting?

Update September 6, 2012:
I just found out that the Dublin Institute of Technology offers a structured PhD program that includes training in skills such as communication, innovation and entrepreneurship, leadership and teamwork, and career management. For those of you thinking about getting your PhD, it is worth taking a look at.

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5.8 Billion

Five billion, eight hundred million

We’re looking at an estimated 5.8 billion dollars being spent by the presidential and congressional races to buy your vote this year.  According to Time Magazine, the combined amount Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will spend on their presidential campaigns is 2.5 billion dollars.  I hope you love presidential mud-slinging commercials; there’s going to be a lot of them as we near Election Day.  I could spend an entire article discussing how the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United changed the political landscape, but I’m trying to avoid putting my readers to sleep…unlike my previous blog posts.

It’s extremely hard to put 5.8 billion into perspective.  Especially for us living off of research scientists salaries.   But let’s see what else we could buy with that money.

15.3% of scientific funding appropriated by the NIH (30.9 billion) and NSF (7.0 billion) in fiscal year 2012.

We could send two more Curiosity rovers to Mars (2.5 billion a piece).  The extra 800 million could be used to equip them with flipper arms and circular saw blades to create a NASA version of Robot Wars.  Seriously, can someone bring that television show back?

Google could buy Groupon, again….and again (2.5 billion acquisition).  Maybe a third time if they offered a groupon.

A little more than a third of the cost of the London Olympics. 

We could fund 145,000 post-doctoral positions for 1 year ($40K each).  This would actually help provide the jobs necessary for President Obama’s mission to increase the number of scientists and engineers in the US. 

Apple?  No.  We’re not nearly in that ball park.  Current estimates put cash on hand at over $110 billion.  But give it a few more presidential elections and we might reach that mark.

Even though politicians will spend all this money, little attention is given to scientific topics.  Why?  First, topics like stem cell research and alternative energy are hot button issues that are bound to upset large groups of people regardless of how the question is answered.  Second, the majorities of politicians know very little about scientific research and simply don’t want to look foolish.  This might explain why the focus always goes to the ethics of scientific research rather than the actual implications of the research itself. 

While has no political affiliations, we would like to encourage you to turn off the television (or at least forward through the election commercials) and head over to for a breakdown of the presidential candidates Science and Technology platforms.  Let’s make informed voting decisions this election rather than allowing the politicians to simply buy our vote. 

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Support for international Science collaboration: A good start, but…

In an effort to promote collaboration and the number of U.S. scientists in Europe, a joint venture between the U.S. NSF and Europe’s ERC was finalized earlier this month at the Euroscience Open Forum when NSF Director Subra Suresh and European commissioner for research and innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn signed the agreement.  The deal allows for selected early career scientists funded by the NSF CAREER awards to spend 3-12 months in labs funded by the ERC.  While at first glance this seems like a good way to accomplish their goals, the funding might better be directed towards scientists still in the postdoctoral role.  In an era when scientific funding is scarce and the average age for a scientist to receive their first grant as a PI is in their 40s, it is imperative that early-career scientists remain in their own lab to establish themselves, their lab, and their careers.  A new PI does not have the luxury of leaving their lab without leadership and an established crew.  Their lab needs oversight and leadership to be productive and pump out papers so that they can obtain more funding and have a successful career.

A better idea is to target postdocs as tools to increase worldwide scientific collaboration.  Postdocs are often more available and willing to move to a different country/lab where they can learn new techniques and establish connections with future collaborators, provided that it will help them further their careers as scientists.  However, the current situation for the U.S. postdoc abroad is dismal.  While it should open new doors and promote future collaborations, there is very little funding for postdocs to explore these options and it is harder still to return to the U.S. and obtain a PI postition, mainly because of the difficulty in getting your first independent funding.  One thing that makes it easier to get your first independent funding is to establish yourself as a fundable postdoc, which must almost exclusively be done within the borders of the U.S.  It is a vicious cycle that makes it almost impossible to remain in academics for those that try.  If today’s scientific leaders and policy makers truly want worldwide collaboration, they should aim more of their efforts at postdoctoral scientists and reward those that have spent time honing their skills abroad.

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