Thursday, August 22, 2013

Entrepreneurial Opportunities and Innovation Thanks to the National Science Foundation (NSF)

Robert Shiller, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, wrote a wonderful OpEd in last Sunday's New York Times: "Why Innovation is Still Capitalism's Star," in which he spoke about the company he founded with Karl Case of Wellesley College (I used to attend seminars at Harvard when I was a Visiting Scholar and Associate Professor at the Sloan School and School of Engineering, respectively, at MIT, at which Karl would be present). The company was sold but its "products," now known as the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, are very often used and referred to.

In the OpEd, Shiller writes that his business made its mark without any help from the government but then writes the following:

Long before I started any commercial ventures of my own, I received some federal government support — in the form of National Science Foundation research grants, awarded to me decades ago as a young professor. They allowed me to do research, and though it was not directly related to my later business endeavors, the process developed my expertise and reinforced a sense of entrepreneurial opportunity.

These grants were awarded competitively, based on the quality of the proposals, and gave me experience with a system focused on creating opportunities for those who try hard. Later, from 1983 to 1985, I evaluated others’ proposals when I served on the foundation’s panel for economics. Observing the process from the government side convinced me that the foundation really works. Maybe it’s because the panelists are chosen from successful scientists, who serve anonymously out of public spirit.

The first year that I was at MIT, 1989-1990, I was funded by the National Science Foundation's Visiting Professorship for Women, and was based at the Center for Transportation in the Department of Civil Engineering (Building 1 for those of you familiar with MIT).  Besides teaching a course there and doing a lot of research, I also organized a Women in Operations Research (OR) Speaker Series, which took place at MIT's Operations Research Center, located on Amherst Street (which made me feel at home). I was following in the footsteps of my dissertation advisor at Brown University, Professor Stella Dafermos, who had also had an NSF Visiting Professorship at MIT,  a few years prior to me. My readers know that she was the second female in the world to received a PhD in OR!

The receipt of  that NSF grant, plus 3 more, early in the new millennium, including a large one with two females: professors,  June Dong and Patricia Mokhtarian, gave me the confidence needed to take risks with my research, and engendered an entrepreneurial spirit.

That large NSF grant, Decentralized Decision-Making in Complex Network Systems, along with two AT&T Industrial Ecology Fellowships, enabled me to establish the Virtual Center for Supernetworks at the Isenberg School of Management in 2001.

An additional stimulus behind the Supernetworks Center was the publication of  my book, with June Dong, Supernetworks: Decision-Making for the Information Age.

In 2003, under the leadership of our great Dean at that time, Dr. Tom O'Brien (with whom I had such a nice conversation the other day), I was given lovely space to create the Supernetworks Laboratory for Computation and Visualization. Our new Dean, Dr. Mark Fuller, now holds a Chaired Professorship in Tom's name.

And, just this past week, I received the letter from our Provost, James Staros, and our Vice Chancellor for research and Engagement, Mike Malone, that the UMass Amherst Evaluation Committee for Centers & Institutes has recommended the continuation of the Virtual Center for Supernetworks for another 5 years. The evaluation cited many of the activities of the Center and its Associates, which have even included undergraduates conducting research under NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

As I have written before, in the context of Steve Jobs, risk-taking is essential to innovation, and support, such as that provided by NSF, gives females concrete evidence and financing that they can lead and even establish a center. And, now, we are involved in another truly thrilling NSF research project, Network Innovation Through Choice.

Thank you, NSF, for supporting scientific research without boundaries and for recognizing also the contributions of females to scientific innovation and discoveries!