Fruits of R&D are not immediate, not nonexistent

When budgets are tight and the bean counters are feverishly counting every bean, it is
hard to get support for any project that doesn't offer a clear and immediate return. Yet,
by their nature, the benefits of R&D are speculative.

 To my knowledge, no technological innovation has ever been adopted simply as a
result of a favorable cost-benefit analysis. The benefits are nebulous and unpredictable,
and the costs are typically substantial. Breakthough technologies are not for the
faint-hearted.

 True innovations are born of visionaries who wager their careers on ideas
inconceivable to the average person. They are nurtured by promises made on faith. In many
ways, the innovator has more in common with the gambler and the artist than with the
accountant or technician.  


Despite reinvention rhetoric, traditional thinking still dominates most federal
agencies. Times aren't tough enough to dislodge our circle-the-wagons mentality. Only when
we get desperate will we pull up stakes in our turf and change time-honored procedures.
Pulling up the stakes successfully is a skill acquired after long years of R&D
experience.

 Not all research is alike. Basic research creates the map, and applied research
takes us on the journey. Both are needed, but austerity heavily favors applied research
over basic research. Holders of the purse strings are more interested in solving specific
problems than in learning how the world works. To get funding, you're better off proposing
a quick fix than satisfying curiosity.

 There are federal agencies with R&D missions in information technology, but they
are living hand-to-mouth. With debt service and entitlements consuming the lion's share of
the federal budget, discretionary programs such as R&D are vanishing. The thinking
goes, why spend scarce tax dollars on something the private sector will do anyway?

 Finally someone is looking at this problem with a fresh eye. Clearly a first step,
the Workshop on Research and Development Opportunities in Federal Information Services is
"intended to address a concern regarding high-level disconnect of the information
services (IS) field from the information technologies R&D world."

 This disconnect "is cultural, educational and technological," the group
says. Its premise is that most industrial IRM/IS managers come from management/business
school backgrounds. That culture does not value and invest in R&D without immediate
gain.

 To be held May 13-15, this workshop is sponsored by the Applications Council of the
National Science & Technology Council Committee on Computing, Information, and
Communications; the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Working Group; and
the National Institute of Health's National Center for Research Resources.

 About those aforementioned managers. Most B-school graduates are trained to be more
comfortable with profits than prophecy. They make investment decisions according to
short-term payoff potential. One result: Funding is often based on who can tell the most
convincing fables in their cost-benefit analyses. The discovery of the New World made
Spain the dominant world power. Yet, Columbus was viewed as a failure by many for not
finding the trade routes to the Far East. No one realized he'd found a new continent. It
was decades before the fruits of his efforts began to pay off.

 By that time he had died in obscurity and poverty.

 It should come as little surprise that, as the workshop announcement observes,
"Many federal government agencies procure huge information systems associated with
various nontechnical functions without the benefit of sufficient interaction with each
other or with the R&D community."

 Actually this statement reflects the unfortunate blending of two distinct problems.
The first is the challenge of overcoming the interagency barriers, and the second is the
difficulty of overcoming the barriers to communicating with the R&D world.  


Both problems require mutual understanding. The former creates opportunities for the
parties to work together on common tasks.

 The latter requires this plus scientific training and intellectual curiosity.

 Many in our community-feds, vendors, people on the Hill-see technology as the best
solution for the budget crisis. Through technological innovation, we expect to deliver
better service for less money. But innovative thinking is not a commodity. It is instead a
perspective and organizational value that must be developed and nurtured.

 For more details and location of the workship, point your browser to http://www.isi.edu/nsf/


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is athttp:/ /www.cpcug.org/user/houser/.
 


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