A Push for Partnerships; Encourage Entrepreneurship

Article excerpt

Byline: Sally Sternbach, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If any region or, for that matter, if the United States, wants to remain a global technology leader, then two conditions are necessary: We must have a competitive workforce, and we must do a much better job of encouraging entrepreneurs to commercialize the technological discoveries made in our federal and university laboratories.

America has refined the art of national hand-wringing over the low support for science and math studies in our K-12 curriculum. Various programs have been supported in fits and starts over the years, but, in truth, our results on a global scale are still second rate.

The same might be said of technology transfer. We have gingerly worked at extracting technology discoveries from our federal and university research laboratories through out-licensing, and we have created offices of technology transfer. But the concept has never received a full embrace, and with very few exceptions the offices remain small and woefully underfunded. These issues beg for substantive long-term solutions; they also raise the question of whether there might be some shortcuts available. We believe we have found one.

The Washington region draws 1,500 to 2,000 post-doctoral fellows annually to do research in some 30 federal laboratories, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. An equal number become fellows at local universities. Fellowships are extremely competitive, with up to 10 applicants for a single fellowship. These are our best and brightest, new generation research scientists.

Fellows spend one to four years working on some of the world's thorniest problems in such cutting edge fields as neuropsychology, astrophysics, biomedical engineering and radio wave telecommunication. When their fellowships end, most of them drift away with the ultimate goal of finding an academic position. After all, it is a world they know well and one in which they have enjoyed significant success and recognition.

Unfortunately, there is an academic job shortage nationwide. A 2005 Sigma Xi publication, "Doctors Without Orders," concluded that "growth in the number of science and engineering postdocs over the past decade (2.8 percent per year) has outstripped the rate of increase in the number of full-time science and engineering faculty positions (0.8 percent per year) ..Most of the postdocs we surveyed will probably not become faculty members at a research university. Indeed, they will likely end up outside of academia altogether."

Herein lays an opportunity for a serendipitous matching of the supply and demand sides of the equation. …