Joseph Friedlander’s Thoughts Inspired By Alexander Bolonkin’s Writings On How To Catalyze Innovation And Technical Progress

Guest Post by Joseph Friedlander

Bolonkin has stated, All useful things, which we see around us everyday, were developed from new concepts, ideas researched in the rather recent past. This fact is gracefully, eloquently, and comprehensively outlined in Robert Friedel’s A CULTURE OF IMPROVEMENT: TECHNOLOGY AND THE WESTERN MILLENNIUM (MIT Press, 2007).

Joseph Friedlander summarizes in his own words (and conclusions) inspired by Bolonkin’s ideas on the innovation process as it is, should be and a way to a better process:

1. R&D of new concepts and innovations is vital to national standing in the world.

2. You can’t fund everything so you have to get the best results for your tax money spent.

3. The very proposal process can exclude true innovators and innovation. The problem is centered on gatekeepers both personal and bureaucratic.

4. A tiny minority of innovators produces a preponderance of the best results. A tiny minority of students are the future hope of the country for tech leadership. These are your priority, must be your priority—any system that loses sight of this will cost its nation rank in the world. Of course the operators of that educational system may not take that as a priority. Nor the operators of the research funding system once those few talented kids reach maturity, develop talents and apply for funding.

5. Each steering committee and proposal process that a proposal must pass decreases the chance of the projects that do pass being authentic innovations in waiting, and increases the chance of the projects being familiar and pedestrian and well liked.

Professor Bruce Charlton on this tendency:

Charlton BG. The cancer of bureaucracy: how it will destroy science, medicine, education; and eventually everything else. Medical Hypotheses – 2010; 74: 961-5.

The key ‘parasitic’ mutation being the introduction of committees for major decision-making or decision-ratification… Individual bureaucracies must become useless parasites which ignore the ‘real world’ in order to adapt to rapidly-changing ‘bureaucratic reality’. Within science, the major manifestation of bureaucracy is peer review, which – cancer-like – has expanded to obliterate individual authority and autonomy. There has been local elaboration of peer review and metastatic spread of peer review to include all major functions such as admissions, appointments, promotions, grant review, project management, research evaluation, journal and book refereeing and the award of prizes. Peer review eludes the immune system of science since it has now been accepted by other bureaucracies as intrinsically valid, such that any residual individual decision-making (no matter how effective in real-world terms) is regarded as intrinsically unreliable (self-interested and corrupt).

6. As stated, a tiny minority of innovators produces a preponderance of the best results. These are almost never the same people who are skilled at working the system of committees for personal advancement and gain.

7. The latter class of people will tend to ascend to positions of control and steer funding away from the true innovators and to their own networks and their favored projects. This of course is a restatement of Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Therefore the lighter you can keep the superstructure the more efficient the process will be.

8. Yet if all proposals go through one gatekeeper who has no competition in a rival organization then he himself has a good chance of being the kind of person who favors a box-checking timeserver over a can-do principal investigator who does not check all the boxes. A system that discourages champions of ideas, and from which there is no appeal, will be a graveyard rather than a promoter of new ideas– all in the name of innovation.

9. Most new ideas are the product of individual genius, developed in collaboration with skilled workers, ideally in a (not necessarily formal) team.

10. Most apparently fecund incubators for ideas actually receive them from the outside, once conceived. There is no substitute for the individual vision that starts an idea, nor the individual obsession that follows it to successful deployment.

11. Innovation can ruin your career path; even many talented people don’t want to upset apple-carts, even if they are not themselves apple polishers for the relevant administrators. Supposing the miracle of supportive, intelligent and protective administrators the innovation project is still costly in terms of private time and even the marriage relationship if the wife is not supremely supportive. All this only decreases the pool of talented people from which innovators can be drawn.

12. Nearly all funders of so called innovation don’t actually want revolutionary new technologies. The US Navy would be very unhappy if a new development obsoleted the surface ship, or submarine, or even both; the US Air Force would be very unhappy if piloting slots were drastically reduced (the career ladder for new officers). Most innovation funders want a ‘better’ status quo– and they get to define better. And if they do want authentic innovation, they certainly want it on a schedule that will not upset their own bosses’ timetables. The science fiction fan’s schedule for optimum deployment of a new technology is not the fleet amortization manager’s schedule for such.

13. The patent lawyer always gets paid, the corporation most times gets paid, the inventor hardly ever gets paid.

14. The winner of a $10 million research grant for his institution will only get his normal salary, and though his career may be helped, it is the administrators who will live better than he off the work of his mind.

15. In our society composers and singers of hit songs are better rewarded than the innovators who will one day invent the equipment to save their lives.

16. A high probability $1000 innovator’s prize would beat the remote sucker bait prospect of a multimillion dollar patent payout Someday if you only keep paying the patent lawyers up front–

17. The US political system is dominated by people who have been involved in the real estate business and lawyers, who pass laws favorable to their professions. Almost invariably these laws do no favor to innovators.

18. Direct Bolonkin quote: Why must scientists gift their hard work to the world, as they labor on new concepts, ideas, theories, and equations for computations? It would be just if companies making millions from a newly invented method of computation would pay a small ($1000) royalty for the author, without the bizarre legal structure where the only people with assured income from innovations are the readily-despised lawyers.

19. Direct Bolonkin quote: any concept exhausts itself and its inherent efficiency possibilities over time.

20. Bolonkin has proposed a 3 part filter for worthwhile innovation proposals: What is actually new about this work, what innovation does it offer? What are your detailed computations of the possibilities—and let us check your work, including cost estimates? And financial disclosure of all public monies received by any entity from a research grant. These three together would reject many non-innovative research proposals that advance the career of the publish or perish oriented timeserver, and reveal the actual financial interest of many institutions pushing non-innovative work. If the incentives are removed, the behavior may change.

21. Direct Bolonkin quote: The United States of America’s Federal Government must install a series (3 – 5) of annual special national Government prizes (awards of about $100K should be sufficient) in every important scientific field (space, energy, computing, biology, physics, et cetera.) for new-concept scientific researches that are given ONLY for new concepts and ideas developed by author and published or presented in sufficient qualifying detail at a scientific conference or on the Internet …The awards must be given ONLY to qualified individuals. The competition must be OPEN, advertised widely in public notices. ALL contenders and their work and proposals announced BEFORE any awards. The awarding Committee must be from independent well-known scientists in given field.

22. Any system of reviewers (internal +external reviewers), should be identified publically and publically reachable. Anonymous reviewers may lessen personal acrimony but they certainly do constitute a black hole of accountability. Those who refuse to show where money goes or the process of approval are basically saying “Trust me”.

23. An awful lot of publicly funded research is more a subsidized exploration of previously known ideaspace than a funded breakthrough innovation. In naval analogy more like a midshipman training cruise than a bold voyage of exploration. You may object that training cruises are also necessary; I say let the institutions pay for their own internal expenses and let public monies for real innovation buy real innovation.

24. Something that would help an awful lot is to take very talented people and give them a year or two free of busywork to collaborate with other very talented people, proper support facilities, and money for supplies. An awful lot would get invented. This would be a true incubator rather than the current model of incubator which really tries to shoehorn the entering footprint of the new into the comfortable old ways of doing things—comfortable for the present bureacracies and legal and corporate stakeholders. Enough to keep the suckers’ money coming in but not to disturb the very profitable (for some) arrangements that prevail.

25. The whole obsolete gatekeeper function of scientific journals’ publishers (once necessary when printing vast paper libraries took real money) is now actually an obscenity; academic journals charge people for the results of publicly funded research. It should all be free and on the internet for free access. We paid for it once. I have no objection to them charging for paper copies but everything should be freely downloadable, not behind a paywall.

26. The same for the gatekeeper function of journals’ editors. They often add quality but also often have favorites and hold court and block access. There should also be rival journals so if this kind of behavior happens the corrupt journal will be bypassed as the center of real work in the field instead of redefining corrupt as the new normal. If this is not possible 100% then there should be clearly stated reasons for rejection and an independent venue of appeal to keep the abuses down.

27. Talented people should get expenses to conferences. Yes, this could be abused but if taxpayer-funded conferences are to be held at all private inventors and researchers should enrich the publicly funded institution only viewpoint (I include contractors and corporations) that is the normal now. The big institutional bias does no favors for innovation.

28. There should be a free and vast library on the Internet of technical, mathematics, physics textbooks. In fact every resource needed for a scientific education. We paid taxes once directly or indirectly to fund their making, and we are owed our money’s worth.

29. If we are going to have a patent system at all (in my opinion) it should be for short periods (Bolonkin himself favors a longer 20 years) but effective immediately. It should be free to all inventors, with no games with fees. Oh, and the government should be your patent agent to the world, applying overseas in all countries and sharing the royalties with you for the service. This helps the innovation costs stay low and means the usual predators are blocked by a bigger one—the government itself. (All patent lawyering should be paid for by the government (probably as a lower-paid civil service job). If you object that it would be hard to get lawyers to meet the specs for a civil service salary, then change the specs and laws, you’re the government.

30. I am coming to believe that a system without patents might work almost as well with Bolonkin’s prize system in place (considerably enriched, say 20,000 x $100,000 prizes ($2 billion annually) for the inventions with the most actual uses as measured by industry implementation. . Stephen Kinsella estimates that patent wars and legal struggles cost $40 billion a year, more than the value of the inventions themselves. This 100 k x 20k plan might actually pay.

31. Direct quote from Bolonkin: The PTO creates a lot of rules that permit the pumping of money from people and that allows the sabotaging of the patenting process.

32. Bolonkin favors a category of “Announced Inventions” which should be applicable for free over the Internet and favors the small inventor. This would include automatic request triggered process for the government to sue the violator of a patent on the inventor’s behalf. A corporation can always outlast an inventor. But the government can outlast a corporation.

33. Bolonkin favors a category of “Important patents for defense of the USA” where the inventor gets the certificate for free, the Government owns the rights, and a royalty goes to the inventor.

34. As a general principal any ‘natural’ monopoly (including government offices) should be divided between two rival agencies. “Wasteful competition” is usually the sales line of a would be monopolist from whom there would be no appeal. And a rival organization makes comparative statistics on success or failure possible. And this goes double when grant approval, prize selection or favor granting are involved.

35. OPEN competitions and elimination of gatekeeper organizations are needed. I am not sure the National Academy of Scientists helps more than it hurts. Let the talented people work out their own pecking order, and start the competition boiling by getting rid of long-established bodies and starting among their former members open competition to produce ranking works. Those organizations are no longer fresh and only add overhead anyway. (one example, the