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ASU professor to co-lead group helping to maximize innovations at federal labs

ASU prof to see why university labs outpace federal labs on commercialization.
October 21, 2019

Committee to untangle why universities far outpace federal labs in commercializing work

Thousands of scientists are hard at work across the country, but their innovations don’t always make it out of their labs. A professor at Arizona State University has been tapped to co-chair a prestigious national committee to find out how to maximize intellectual property created at the national laboratories.

Donald Siegel, director of the School of Public Affairs at ASU, is on a committee for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to investigate digital products created in the federally funded national labs.

“The Trump administration is trying to figure out how to generate a higher return on investment in federally funded research, so we’ll be looking at some best practices and bottlenecks,” said Siegel, an economist and Foundation Professor of public policy and management. He is co-chair of the committee, which will work for two years and then will likely produce a report and possibly testify before Congress.

Currently, the federal government gives more money to the nation’s federal labs than to the university labs, yet university labs are far more successful at commercializing their results.

There are more than 300 federal labs, including well-known institutions such as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The only federal lab in Arizona is the U.S. Army Electronic Proving Ground at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona.

Donald Siegel

For 2014, the federal government spent about $38 billion on research at universities and $42 billion on federal labs. In that year, the universities produced 6,363 patents compared with 1,931 at the federal labs, and university labs generated $2.5 billion in licensing income compared with $194 million for the federal labs.

ASU earned 130 patents in 2018 and is tied for 10th among universities in the world, thanks to a model that fast-tracks research from lab to commercial application.

“Universities are doing a great job at technology transfer. They’re aggressively engaging in patenting and licensing and startup activity,” Siegel said. “But what’s going on at the federal labs? Why aren’t we seeing the same level of technology transfer?”

Lack of data is one problem the committee will address.

 “We have very poor data on tech transfer at the federal labs. It’s horrendous,” Siegel said. “The university data are much better and much more systematically collected and disseminated and we understand it a lot better than we do at the labs, which are pretty much a black box.”

Siegel answered some questions from ASU Now.

Question: Your committee is starting this process by looking at digital products. What are digital products?

Answer: We will need to precisely define that. Everything is a digital product now. Computers are embedded in many products and services — our appliances, cars, drug-delivery systems, pacemakers.

Q: So is this about profits?

A: We’re not only interested in whether the technology makes money. Commercialization is just part of it. If you’re a pure scientist, you might not care about money but you still want your innovation to be used by people. The technology has social value. As a scientist, it would give me pleasure to know that the research I worked on is improving peoples’ lives. Things don’t have to be sold. Software can be open source.

Q: What might be some reasons for the difference in commercialization between university labs and federal labs?

A: The federal labs have a different mission. They are much more secretive, and they should be because some are working on national security or sensitive defense-related technology that we don’t want to leak out. So we have to be careful with that. Technology transfer gets a lot of federal labs nervous because it implies the possibility of technologies being used by enemies.

Congress decided when it enacted the Bayh Dole Act in 1980 that, despite the fact that the government is paying for most university research, the universities could patent and copyright the intellectual property they create. Federal labs have a lot of flexibility but not as much. For example, a scientist at a federal lab can’t start a company, and an ASU faculty member can. If you’re a federal employee and you create new software, you’re not allowed to copyright it. It belongs to the taxpayer, technically.

Also, I think universities have been under a lot of pressure to generate new sources of revenue both because of the decline in state support and the decline in some fields in federal research dollars. Universities have had to be more entrepreneurial.

Federal labs don’t have the same kind of pressure that universities do, and that’s one of the key institutional differences.

Q: So how can the federal labs be motivated to increase commercialization?

A: Based on my own research, I would argue that we have to look at incentives for scientists at these labs. How are they rewarded? Whether it’s financially or in terms of promotion. In addition we have to think about organizational and psychological factors that might influence scientists to engage in commercialization, such as organizational justice — how you’re treated in the workplace. Does leadership matter?

And there are issues such as work-life balance. When we interview faculty and postdocs, they say, “I don’t have time to take on commercialization. I have family obligations, research, teaching. I don’t have time to file a patent or start a company.”

What I will try to do in this committee is draw on some lessons from what we’ve learned by studying what faculty do.

And we may have the flexibility to modify some legislation to say things like, “OK, federal employees can copyright software” or to change incentives so employees at federal labs can start a company.

We’ll have to see how much congressional support there is, but this is a bipartisan issue.

Q: What are some potential obstacles?

A: We’ll be getting feedback from all sides, including the private sector, which I think will fight this because we’re taking away some of their profits. They would like everything the government produces to be free. They don’t want to see any federal scientists getting money from this.

We’ll also measure the value of open-source software. We want people to use the technology, but if we give it away, nobody will want to develop it. Who will put the time and energy into something they have to give away?

Some of the software manufacturers are going to be concerned about the idea of the government copyrighting software or being more aggressive in exercising its intellectual property rights.

But it’s important to figure out how to change the culture to support entrepreneurship in the federal labs. At ASU, we’ve incentivized people with promotion and tenure, and not just incentives but also by creating a culture to support this.

Top image: Sandia National Laboratories' Thermal Test Complex in Albuquerque, New Mexico, provides a controlled environment to conduct thermal testing. Photo by Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Unmasked: A look at Halloween’s costuming history

October 21, 2019

ASU professor revisits Celtic culture that inspired hallowed holiday tradition

GuisingThe practice of disguising oneself, often with a mask, and visiting people's houses.. MummingPantomime acting in a mask for a mummers, or folk, play.. SoulingThe English practice of going from house to house asking for donations of food on All Hallow's Eve.. That which we call Halloween costuming, by any other name would it not still trick-or-treat?

The time-honored tradition of dressing up as vampires and vamps is upon us, prompting reflection on how this practice came to be.

While many of today’s Halloween traditions are closely associated with the United States, a look back at the origins of donning costumes and collecting treats reveals a long and complex evolution that draws from cultural, religious and occult traditions from Europe's Middle Ages that continues to provoke discussion even in modern times.

“Halloween has always been an uneasy fit for some religions,” said Cajsa Baldini, a clinical associate professor of British and European literature and culture in the Department of English at Arizona State University. She adds, “Giant bonfires, demonic faces carved out of produce and general nature worship is difficult to reconcile with some religious beliefs and practices.”

Critics have also clamped down on Halloween for costumes deemed inappropriate and culturally insensitive in recent years. But, as Baldini tells ASU Now, Halloween and the traditions that predate the holiday have always been the subject of scrutiny.

Question: How did the tradition of dressing up for Halloween begin?

Answer: The tradition of Halloween costumes is both ancient and modern. Halloween, as celebrated in the United States today, is largely derived from the Celtic Samhain (pronounced SOW’-en) festival, which celebrated the end of the fertile seasons, and in extension, the end of life. Few artifacts of druid Samhain celebrations have been uncovered, but eyewitness accounts recorded by Roman writers such as Caesar, Suetonius and Diodorus suggest that Samhain celebrations included the lighting of large bonfires to ward off the dark and natural forces emanating from unpopulated wilderness. Druid priests conducting the ceremonies have been depicted wearing long white or gray robes and with oak wreaths on their heads that were likely more in nature with religious vestments than costumes.

With the advent of Christianity, Samhain celebrations soon became absorbed by Christian celebrations such as All Saints’ Day and All Hallows’ Eve, from which the word Halloween is derived. Amalgamated with Samhain are also other, indigenous traditions relating to fall, harvest and also the Mexican feast of Día de los Muertos, and possibly with features of Jewish Purim. What these all have in common is that they address the end of the lighter and fertile part of the year, and a transition into a time of darker and shorter days analogous with the progression of human life. 

 - ASU

Cajsa Baldini

Q: Where did the morbidly dark themes of early Halloween costumes stem from?

A: The scary nature of Halloween celebrations today comes out of ancient religious practices, as documented by Roman historians and later Christian writers. While most people no longer think of Halloween as a religious celebration, its historical origins of harvest and fall rites remain, unremembered but embedded — even if we no longer think of this fun tradition as a rite of thankfulness and an effort to appease the forces of death.

It is perhaps this atavistic fear of the forces of death that prompts millions to don vampire and zombie costumes once a year. By disguising ourselves as that which we fear the most, we — in a manner — become one with what we fear, while also disguising ourselves as non-prey. We might think of it as a kind of mimicry of death. Even a costume and mask, which is by definition not scary, is still a disguise in which we take on the look and identity of someone or something else, hoping to cheat those unknown forces that loom larger on these evenings late in October. 

Q: How did the tradition of Halloween costuming and trick-or-treating come into being? 

A: Combining costuming with trick-or-treating makes the practice even more fun, but is actually a more serious reenactment of sanctioned begging practiced by the poorest of the society at a time of the year when their more fortunate neighbors may have been more inclined to share their bounty. However, as Western society became more secularized in the 19th and 20th centuries, the original purpose of going door to door became further obscuredCiting "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night" by Nicholas Rogers (2003).. What did remain as part of the tradition was the spirit of deception and mischief. It became an occasion for engaging with your community by pranking and asking for treats.

Q: When did the Halloween costuming tradition begin in America?

A: Dress-up for Halloween was more or less strictly a U.S. custom from the mid-19th century until just recently, but is now gaining popularity in many parts of the world. While All Hallow’s Eve traditions came to America with Puritan settlers in the 17th century, generally speaking they were not as acceptable as in Britain. Puritan thought inherently distrusted any kind of masking or guising as deceptive and therefore related to Satan, or at the very least reminiscent of Catholicism and its veneration of saints. Halloween, therefore, remained less acceptable well into the 19th century when secularization made it more popular.

It is also possible the large numbers of Irish immigrants coming to the U.S. to escape the great potato famine found Halloween an acceptable compromise between their Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day and the necessity to integrate in a new country.

Q: How has Halloween evolved from dark traditions to the themes we see in Halloween costumes and practices today?

A: Early Samhain celebrations were said to include sacrifices of harvest products, livestock and possibly also humans. The Roman general Julius Caesar was particularly disturbed by what he described as a “wicker man sacrifice” in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico. We should, however, keep in mind that Caesar’s account of the proceedings could have been motivated by a desire to establish a moral high ground before eradicating the entire priesthood of a conquered people.

It is, however, easy to see how the the menacing atmosphere and horror elements of the original cult have remained a significant aspect of Halloween and to some people’s discomfort. In fact, as late as 2014, conservative media evangelist Pat Robertson declared Halloween to be akin to demon worship and advised parents not to let their children participate.

Halloween traditions today are for most people comfortably nonreligious, but are instead firmly entrenched as a pop-cultural and commercial holiday. Every year we see the zombie-like, seasonal resurrection of the Halloween store across America. An important and engaging feature of modern traditions is that Halloween has become a carnivalesque opportunity for personal imagination and reinvention, whether as a werewolf, a comic book hero, video game character or Alice in Wonderland.

Cajsa Baldini teaches classes in 19th-century fiction that include gothic fantasy tales such as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and H.R. Haggard’s “She.” Baldini affectionately calls her lessons “Cult Courses,” attracting a captive audience of upper-division students each semester.

"Cult Courses Promo Video" by Cajsa Baldini

Top photo courtesy Oakenroad via Flickr


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