The National Science Foundation is about as likely to become a leader in innovation, says inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, as a sumo wrestler is of fitting into a tutu. Speaking this morning to a distinguished group of scientists and educators, Kamen delivered a blunt message: Don't try to do innovation yourself. Instead, give little guys like me the resources to get the job done, and then get out of the way.
A 2000 winner of the National Medal of Technology, Kamen spoke to a subpanel of NSF's governing body, the National Science Board, that is looking into "preparing the next generation of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] innovators." The task group heard from prominent academics and policymakers about the characteristics of successful innovators and entrepreneurs, the current state of U.S. education, and the paths and barriers to success. After Education Secretary Arne Duncan received a standing ovation for a talk in which he encouraged everyone to "raise the bar" and to "break the rules" on how schools are run and teachers are trained, Kamen brought them back to earth.
Large organizations, by their very nature, can't be innovators, Kamen explained. "But that's okay. Consistency is often a good thing, and NSF is very good at what it does." Instead of trying to change its stripes, Kamen suggested, NSF should leverage its money by supporting efforts like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a student robotics competition Kamen began in 1992 that has grown into an international extravaganza through corporate backing. Acknowledging his "self-serving" message, Kamen told the panel: "We don't need you to pay scientists and engineers to become classroom teachers. They are already working [on FIRST] for free. All we need is for the teachers to get paid the same stipend to work with the robotics team as they get to coach the football team."
The panel hopes to produce a white paper summarizing the 2-day meeting and recommending how the U.S. government can nurture this talent pool.