If I Ran the (Academic) Zoo

I believe that we could do better at developing and mobilizing high intellectual talent,and I have a couple of suggestions. One suggestion is for private-sector moonshot projects. The other suggestion is to match curious students with helpful mentors

Moonshot Projects

Most academic research is busywork. Professors are trying to accomplish just enough to get a paper into a journal. In most cases, that’s fine. Many of the players in the academic publishing game are not good for anything else, and it keeps them out of trouble.

But there are researchers with outstanding expertise and/or creativity, and we would like to see them working on projects that are worthy of their talents. My guess is that many of them could accomplish more if they were collaborating on large, important efforts, known as moonshot projects. Past examples include: the Manhattan Project; the space program that culminated in landing Neil Armstrong on the moon; and the Human Genome Project.

I would like to see moonshot projects attempted by the private sector, funded by wealthy individuals or corporations. Government-funded projects can succeed well enough, and it’s great when they do; but when they don’t succeed, they drag on and on, wasting huge amounts of resources (I’m looking at you, Department of Energy). The private sector does a better job of dealing with stumbling projects, either by fixing them or by canceling them.

As I envision it, a moonshot project would draw in leading researchers. Many years ago, business consultant Robert Waterman proposed the “bulletin board test” for the participants on a project team. He suggested that if you listed the project team members and put that list on a corporate bulletin board, everyone in the company who looked at the list should say, “Wow! All our best people are on that project!”

If the bulletin board test is met, that means that the project is being treated as important, and it is likely to succeed. If not, then perhaps top management is not really committed to the project. There is a risk that it will stall or collapse, so smart people should stay off it.

The researchers recruited for moonshot projects should pass the bulletin board test. They should be icons in their field. They should demonstrate a real commitment to participate, not simply put the project somewhere near the bottom of their priority list. Ideally, the researchers will find themselves learning from one another. That will be one of the benefits of the project.

The project organization must be solid. It has to include an outstanding project executive and an outstanding project manager.

You need a project executive who is accountable for success, always available to the project manager to help resolve issues. The project executive must be able to provide resources as needed.

One of the things that struck me about the Obamacare web site fiasco is that there appeared to be no capable project executive. Leaders in the private sector know better than to try to carry out a major initiative without a strong project executive.

The project manager must have a lot of knowledge of the subject matter. This is necessary in order to earn respect from the research team and to set priorities with good judgment. But the project manager is a facilitator, not a dictator.

Curious students and helpful mentors

Classes are a sub-optimal approach to learning. Most of the students in the room are not highly motivated, and most professors are not expecting students to undertake initiative. But in fact, I believe that the best connections often are often forged in the hallway outside the classroom, when a curious student poses a question and the professor responds by suggesting material for the student to read in order to explore the topic further.

I would like to see an educational alternative for 15–22 year-olds optimized for the most curious students. Students who have the capacity to ask good questions and to undertake independent or self-directed learning should be given the best possible opportunities to do so. We should try to match them with professors who can channel the student’s curiosity into a program for exploring the subjects in which the student is interested.

All we need to do to accomplish this is to give permission to young people to learn this way. Let them seek mentors, using the Internet. Allow them to earn credit for in-depth independent study, so that they can waste less time in classes.

With the Internet, auto-didacts can access the whole world’s knowledge. We ought to give them as much freedom and opportunity as we can.