A Department of Homeland Security Emeritus Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

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An End to Business as Usual: An Open Letter to Researchers on Commercializing Social Science Research


An End to Business as Usual: An Open Letter to Researchers on Commercializing Social Science Research

December 18, 2014John Sawyer

The Challenge

As most professionals in the field of terrorism studies are already aware, the current funding environment is far less secure than in the decade immediately following 9/11. While the optimist in me would like to credit the enormous strides we have collectively made in filling key knowledge gaps with scientifically rigorous data and analysis, researchers are painfully aware of the large number of remaining and new questions in what is really a young field. Instead, the uncertainty we face is largely the result of a political system that prioritizes checks and balances over operational continuity. In times of high levels of partisanship or austere budgets, discontinuity becomes the norm.

While the funding situation may be uncertain, our mission to put research to use is not. START remains committed to working with our affiliates and partners to generate and make available high-quality social science data and analysis throughout the homeland and national security enterprises. While we will continue to be responsive to the specific needs and requests of sponsors, one of the best ways to do this going forward is to ensure that baseline data collection is maintained to avoid losing an ability to perform meaningful trend analyses. Even relatively short interruptions in collection processes that require retrospective augmentation can have significant impacts on the comparability of the data over time. Starting and stopping is also less efficient and more expensive. It is therefore essential to have a robust and secure financial base to provide, at the very least, bridge funding for these critical efforts.

Finding Alternative Revenue Sources

As any financial advisor worth his salt will tell you, the way to manage risk in your financial portfolio is to diversify, diversify, diversify! Over the last four years, START has made a concerted effort to reduce its reliance on the Center of Excellence grant provided by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs. As a result, we have significantly diversified our research funding sources to include the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Department of Defense, Department of State, National Institute of Justice and the National Science Foundation.

Unfortunately, the common theme across these funders is that they are all federal agencies. This is akin to insisting that you have diversified your portfolio because in addition to buying stock in BP, you also bought Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil. While your 401k may survive some specific disasters, e.g. Deep Water Horizon or Exxon Valdez, it would still be highly vulnerable to sector-wide market changes, e.g. a precipitous decline in the price of oil. Likewise, START is now somewhat insulated from a downturn in DHS’s fortunes, but severely exposed to the downside risk of reductions in federally sponsored research generally. Therefore, I was asked in August to serve as START’s Commercialization Director to identify ways to truly diversify our revenue streams by increasing our engagement with the private and non-profit sectors, as well as increasing our direct participation in the market for training and education.

Commercialization is Not a Dirty Word

It might strike some people as odd that an academic institution like START is now seriously planning for and pursuing opportunities to sell our products and services. Most of us got into the academic line of work because we want to serve the public good, to explore the frontiers of knowledge, and to have the intellectual freedom to ask hard questions and go wherever the data takes us without having to worry about how the boss or shareholders might react.

But commercialization, when it is done right, is not a dirty word. It is an opportunity to engage and inform audiences we probably would not normally access otherwise. Moreover, by diversifying funding streams widely to a mass market, we actually increase our independence by decreasing reliance on any one particular funder. This can create a virtuous cycle by enhancing our image as independent, objective sources of data and analysis, which makes it easier to secure additional funding from a variety of different sources. Finally, if we stay true to our competitive advantages, commercialization efforts should require only marginal changes in how we are already doing business as academic researchers.

How to Commercialize Social Science Research

One of the major challenges we face is that the traditional paradigm and well-worn pathways for technology commercialization are often a fairly poor fit for much of the work that we do. As a result, commercializing social science research requires a great deal of creativity and active participation by the researchers. While START can provide guidance and/or channels for turning your ideas into profitable ventures, ultimately the ideas and the drive to pursue them have to come from you, the researchers.

The approach we have developed for improving our commercial engagement is based on a two-part foundation. First, we must improve our ability to identify and protect the intellectual property (IP) we are producing. Second, we must engage with the potential market to better understand what specific products or services are in demand.

The first step in commercializing research is to improve the understanding of what constitutes IP. We social scientists rarely produce patentable inventions, but are prolific in producing copyrightable materials. Simple awareness of the IP protection framework will likely shift how you think about the work you have been producing and influence how you package research-derived knowledge moving forward.

Once you have identified IP that you think might have some commercial value, the next step is to protect it and properly declare it. There are many resources available to learn about the respective definitions and differences between various types of IP protection, including the U.S. Copyright Office, the U.S. Patent Office, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. The specific rules about IP ownership and protection vary between institutions, so I strongly recommend you consult the relevant policies and support offices at your institution. For example, at the University of Maryland, we work primarily on IP issues with the Office of Research Administration and Office of Technology Commercialization.

The second part of the foundation is to do some market research to make sure there is sufficient demand for your IP and come up with a plan to meet this demand. This often happens after the IP has been created, but should ideally begin at the idea generation phase. Thinking about the potential market can directly inform the required sections in many proposals on evaluation of practical or policy relevance. Moreover, early integration of the end-goal of commercialization into the project plan makes it much easier and painless to piggyback those efforts onto the ones required to carry out the underlying research project.

Market research entails asking a number of questions. Fortunately, the answers to some of these should probably already come up as you conduct your literature reviews. This list is not exhaustive, but will get you started in a positive direction: Who might be willing to pay for your product or service and what are their price points? Who else is providing something comparable and how comparable is it really? How much time/capital do you need to invest in modifying what you already have to suit their needs? How will you deliver your product or service to them? How will you market your product or service?

Business planning, like much of our research on terrorism, is generally an iterative process. You start with the answers you know, do a little bit of research to fill in what you don’t, then update your earlier answers and start asking new questions, and repeat as necessary. A good first step is to informally poll your current sponsors, fellow researchers and students to get a variety of different perspectives. Once you have something that passes at least a basic gut-check, there are a lot of different resources available to help you through the next steps, including through your universities, state and federal agencies and the private sector. One word of advice: Keep track of the many options that are likely to be generated throughout this process, but really focus on your most promising ones. You can always go back to the list if you hit a dead-end or are so wildly successful you end up looking for the next opportunity.

STARTing Commercialization

Two key things to stress as we move away from academic business as usual: 1. Even if a patent is unlikely that does not mean that your work has no potential commercial applications and 2. Pursuing these commercial opportunities need not interfere with the free exchange of information that is the center of the academic enterprise. Indeed, most of START’s current commercialization efforts center around copyrighted IP that is publicly available. For example, START datasets have open licenses for governmental and research purposes and we will continue to make them freely available for those purposes while simultaneously working with partners to license other uses of these data and their derivatives. Similarly, START is working with our researchers to develop and deliver and/or license training programs derived from our cutting edge research for a range of different audiences.

Over the coming months, I will be reaching out to START affiliates with new and upcoming research projects to start the long-term conversation about commercializing the outputs of those research projects. However, I am a resource for the entire START consortium, so would be happy to help any of our affiliates and partners as you begin or continue your commercialization processes. As a researcher myself, my goal is to make this a natural, minimally-onerous extension of the excellent work you are already doing. Together, we can help insulate the terrorism research agenda from the vagaries of federal budgets and ensure the continued availability of gold standard data and analysis.

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