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Profiles: William Bonvillian

William Bonvillian is the director of the MIT Washington Office, which he joined in January 2006 after seventeen years as a senior policy advisor and chief counsel to Senator Joseph Lieberman. In that capacity, he “works with Congress and the executive branch to raise understanding of the contributions of higher education and research to the national welfare” (from the press release). He further engages, along with the rest of the MIT DC staff, in “research and development and education efforts throughout government, managing a wide portfolio of related policy issues”, as explained on the MIT Washington Office page.

This includes “communicating the latest developments in these key policy areas”, “facilitat[ing] interactions between campus experts and those in Congress, the Administration, associated federal agencies, and national organizations seeking that expertise,” as well as “engaging and educating MIT’s students in the larger science and technology policy-making process, either through classes taught on campus or via the office’s internship and science policy fellows programs.”

Bonvillian is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches courses in science, technology and innovation, especially related to energy. He also teaches the MIT “bootcamp” on science and technology policy during the Independent Activities Period every January. In addition, he is the co-author, along with Georgetown professor Charles Weiss (formally the Distinguished Professor of Science, Technology, and International Affairs at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service, and the first Science and Technology Adviser to the World Bank), of Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution, published in 2009 by MIT Press. His bio further states that “[h]e was the recipient of the IEEE Distinguished Public Service Award in 2007 and was elected a Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011.”

Bonvillian has given numerous speeches and presentations on the topic of science and technology innovation. In particular, he delivered the 2012 D. Allan Bromley Memorial Lecture at the University of Ottawa, where his talk focused on “bringing advanced innovation to the manufacturing sector.” In his abstract, he summarizes the evolution of manufacturing innovation in the US from “innovate here/produce here” to “innovate here/produce there”, and echoes the concerns of innovation experts such as Gary Pisano and Willy Shih, authors of the famous modularity/maturity matrix (a framework to determine whether to outsource manufacturing), when he writes that “many are now rethinking [the latter] doctrine… since integration of R&D/design and production may prove essential to retention of innovation capacity, a fundamental of US economic organization.”

The talk, which was videotaped and posted on Vimeo (the sound is not very good, unfortunately), touched upon “the need to combine new production technologies with new processes and business models” and “the need to examine a series of policy areas, from the increasing integration of production with services, to competitor nation strategies, to workforce and engineering skills, to financing advanced manufacturing, to the innovation organization problem of how to better connect the seams within the innovation and production pipeline.”

Another presentation by Bonvillian that I found particularly insightful is No More Sputnik: The Tripartite Alliance Fifty Years Later (CSIS/ASTRA, October 2007), in which he goes over the history of innovation and R&D funding in the US as well as current trends. A few highlights:

  • Vannevar Bush, who served as the first director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II and oversaw significant R&D support for science and technology, laid out the principle of “federal patronage for the advancement of knowledge” in his book Science, the Endless Frontier and also proposed what would become - after much wrangling with President Harry Truman, as Bonvillian explains elsewhere - the National Science Foundation. It is also impossible to talk about US science and technology innovation without mentioning Sputnik, which later “drove a major influx of R&D funding and science talent support.”
  • The innovation model, which used to be national, is now argued by some to be more and more international, but two key innovation drivers still remain overwhelmingly national: “technological and related innovation”, which was identified by Robert Solow, Nobel-Prize-winning Professor of Economics at MIT, and “human capital engaged in research”, which was studied by Paul Romer, Professor of Economics at Stanford at the time of Bonvillian’s writing and now at NYU.
  • The old innovation model of the national tripartite alliance (Department of Defense, industry, academia, all tightly connected) has become outdated because companies are becoming global. Key issues include the fact that basic research can now be done in many places. Also, the US is possibly following a distributed (what Pisano and Shih call modular) manufacturing model.
  • According to the innovation wave theory studied by Carlota Perez of the University of Essex (following up on arguments made by Joseph Schumpeter about the fact that innovation follows wave cycles such as these), we are in the interim stage of a 40/50-year cycle and thus focus less on breakthrough innovations and more on business models, social science integration, and the like.
  • According to Paul Samuelson, another Nobel-Prize-winning economist, who is quoted by Bonvillian, “economic history is replete with stories of capturing comparative advantage.”
  • Finally, Bonvillian touches upon the differences between dispersing research and dispersing innovation and points out the current absence of international funding model. He concludes by providing some additional systemic US advantages.

A paper Bonvillian wrote for a symposium on “21st century innovation systems for Japan and the United States” offers similarly fascinating insights into innovation organization, defined as “the way in which the direct innovation factors of R&D and talent come together, how R&D and talent are joined in an innovation system”. The paper, entitled “The Connected Science Model for Innovation – the DARPA Role”, summarizes many of the same thoughts as the slides above but is far more comprehensive and easier to follow.

In that paper, Bonvillian uses DARPA, “the primary inheritor of the WWII connected science model embodied in Los Alamos and MIT’s Rad Lab,” as “a tool to explore the deep interaction between the US military leadership and technology leadership.” He argues for a third innovation factor beyond the two identified by Solow and Romer, namely, the way that the two factors – R&D and talent – interact with each other. He also points out that “the US, following the war, shifted to a highly-decentralized model… [which] was predominantly a basic-science focused model… and left what later became known as a “valley of death” between research and development stages.” DARPA, however, emerges as one major exception to this model.

Bonvillian studies in some details three groups of innovators:

  1. Thomas Edison’s “Invention Factory” at Menlo Park in New Jersey.
  2. Albert Loomis and MIT’s Rad Lab.
  3. The Transistor Team at Bell Labs.

He concludes that “a common rule set seems to characterize successful innovation at the personal and face-to-face level,” including “ensuring a highly-collaborative team or group of great talent, a non-hierarchical, flat and democratic structure where all can contribute, a cross-disciplinary talent mix, including experimental and theoretical skills sets…, organization around a challenge model, using a connected science model able to move breakthroughs across fundamental, applied, development and prototype stages, cooperative and collaborative leaders able to promote intense, high morale and direct access to top decision makers able to implement the group’s findings.”

The second half of the paper focuses on DARPA as a “unique model combining institutional connectedness and great groups.” For instance, we learn how J.C.R. Licklider “laid the foundations for two of the 20th century’s technology revolutions, personal computing and the internet,” as “an office director at DARPA.” Bonvillian provides a list of DARPA’ s key advantages, from “small and flexible” to “project-based assignments organized around a challenge model”, but also goes over some of the challenges the agency faces in the 21st century, in particular as its role in the war against terror has pushed it away from the hybrid model that had bridged university and industry efforts “through a process that envisioned revolutionary new capabilities, identified barriers to their realization, focused the best minds in the field on new approaches to overcome those barriers and fostered rapid commercialization and DoD adoption.”

The paper, well-researched and well-argumented, is a must-read for anyone who cares about science and technology policy or the changing landscape of innovation.


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