Faculty members often ask me how one shapes national and international policy and funding priorities for basic and applied research. They are especially curious when a major new initiative has just been announced (e.g., the BRAIN initiative), an initiative is being discussed (e.g., exascale computing) or a particularly raucous political debate is raging over some issue that lies at the intersection of public policy and science and technology. Examples include the patentability of genes and biological processes, broadband access and network neutrality, or high-performance computing and national competitiveness. The answers are different in each case, but there are common themes and approaches in both the creation of major research initiatives and in public policy debates.
Major research initiatives of the type trumpeted in the White House Rose Garden or via a National Academies press event are the culmination of long debates and planning processes, often involving years or in some cases, decades of behind the scenes negotiations. The scientific, technical, social and yes, the political stars must align in just the right ways for these events to occur. I realize the very word "politics" generates antipathy among many academics, but it is a necessary element of any initiative, both within research communities and in the often combative fray of state, national and international relations.
Creating a research initiative requires collaborative partnerships, with clear and demonstrable advantage for each partner. That inevitably means compromise – rarely does any one group get everything it wants. Instead, one must seek a broader unification to create and sustain a coalition of support. The balance, of course, is that an initiative cannot be "all things to all people," else it is not an initiative at all. Thus, the theme and objective must be sufficiently compelling to engage others, but sufficiently focused to have demonstrable benefits. All too often, putative initiatives fail because the members do not articulate a viable outcome and success metric.
With that backdrop, there are three important phases in the arc of any initiative, which I call Shape, Answer and Reflect. Much like a U.S. university capital campaign (aka alumni fundraising), it has a silent phase, a public solicitation phase, and (one hopes) a celebratory phase. In the Shape phase, leaders in a field or collaborative domain – the éminences grises – begin socializing an idea among their colleagues. Perhaps the technology is right to do something in a new way, a new discovery has created a compelling opportunity, or there is a political or economic imperative to act.
Whatever the reason, the discussion first begins in the community. At the outset, it not public, and it is rarely swift, as political and technical alliances and consensus must be built. It may even be fractious and contentious. Slowly however, groups form, white papers are written, studies are commissioned, and a vision emerges. It may even be an institutionalized process, such as the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. At this point, many initiatives founder and fail, due to lack of political and financial support. Only a few potential initiatives become public and survive the choppy waters of research agency prioritization and appropriation politics to become agency programs and initiatives. (How to survive the kicking, gouging and internecine rivalries to secure agency and legislative approval is a topic for another day. )
The Answer phase is when the real technical and scientific work of any initiative takes place, for the concept must be translated into process and actions. This can be as fraught with failure as the conception, as strategies must be translated into tactics, programs and solicitations must be created, teams must be assembled, and proposals must be written. For large projects, thought leaders assemble coalitions of the willing and likeminded; many, though not all initiative projects are led by the original facilitators of the initiative. This is not easy, particularly when the organizational dynamics are complex, as they inevitably are when the stakes (funding levels) are high.
More than one research coalition leader has learned to his or her chagrin that the coalition assembled to win a research competition may not be the one best suited to conduct the research. My friend, Dave Patterson, has written a thoughtful and provocative perspective article entitled "How to Build a Bad Research Center" (Communications of the ACM, Vol. 5, No 3, pp. 33-36, March 2014) that discusses just this topic. (If you are not an ACM member, you can read an earlier version here.)
Finally, the Reflect phase of any initiative includes an internal assessment of the benefits and progress, and an external assessment of the political and social costs relative to competing priorities. If successful, the initiative contains the seeds for future initiative cycles. If not, it can offer salutatory lessons for new approaches. The bigger the initiative, the more politics will matter, internally and externally. Remember, research funding dynamics are not self-similar at scale.
Unlike science and technology initiatives, the dynamics of policy debates are often shaped by broader forces. These often include global trade and national economic competitiveness, regional interests and business constituencies, special interest groups, social expectations and legal precedents, and, oh yes, sometimes a leavening of science and technology. To be a valued and valuable participant in these debates, it is crucial that those of us in academia understand the competing interests and play and the importance of being bilingual – speaking both technology and policy. (See an earlier blog post, entitled "Being Bilingual: Speaking Technology and Policy.")
It is fallacy to believe a policy analyst will necessarily draw the same conclusions from the same data as a scientist or technologist. Nor does that difference always mean that one is right and the other is wrong. Policy discussions may begin with data collection, but they are shaped by a myriad of competing values and priorities. Pragmatically, being a valued participant means respecting differences and appreciating divergent perspectives, as well as an ability to imagine one's self in the other's situation. In each case, the goal is to impart information in a context and way that is useful to others, while advancing one's goals.
Soft Skills Matter
The distillation of experience in major science and technology initiatives and policy debates is simple. Technical knowledge and opportunity definitely matter; after all, the laws of physics are not subject to judicial or legislative interpretation, despite some attempts to the contrary. However, the softer skills of communication, empathy, consensus building and compromise are equally crucial and sometimes more important.
As academics, we need to do more to train a new generation to communicate thoughtfully and engage actively. Finding solutions to the pressing problems of the 21st century depend on it.