Risk-Taking Research and the Academy

Jacob Jones (BSME ’99, MSME ’01, PhD ’04) is assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Florida. He is a recipient of a 2009 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Jacob JonesI think it is important to define “risk taking” in a broad engineering context, not just from the research perspective. Risk taking in research usually refers to the nature of the solution being investigated (e.g., its creativity or innovation). However, practicing engineers are very familiar with dealing with risk in a different context: they are taught to mitigate risk using safety factors and overdesign. My perception is that the very necessary teaching of risk aversion in engineering application can limit the risk taking and creativity undertaken in research. After all, engineers are not typically known as risk-takers!

It would help if we could discuss risk more quantitatively. In my three years as a faculty member, I have not found a good metric for assessing risk-taking research in academia. The Department of Defense has listed a continuum of activities in which we engineers are involved and their closeness to readiness: basic research (most fundamental), applied research, advanced technology development, component development and prototypes, systems development and demonstration, management support, and operational systems development. Generally, risk taking is the highest in basic research and decreases closer to application. In academia, I think we could use a universal means by which to describe the “riskiness” of a given research project. Then funding agencies and universities could make more transparent research investments.

In order for our profession to continue contributing innovative solutions to society, it is absolutely essential that engineering schools learn to better foster and teach creativity. This is not an easy task, but there is no better time than the present given that the current White House administration is encouraging innovation. We all need to dedicate ourselves to this process: alumni, faculty, current students, and employers. We must also remember that the very nature of “risk-taking” research means that it will not always succeed. We need to learn to accept both the successes and failures of high-risk research.

To ensure that some of these efforts are successful, a large number of high-risk projects must be undertaken, regardless of their means of support. Unfortunately, the peer-review process in national funding agencies sometimes discourages high-risk research (after all, engineers are often the reviewers!) Universities have the opportunity to support some high-risk research internally, using it as a programmatic and strategic investment in the future research culture of the campus. Other high-risk opportunities can be enabled by universities partnering more directly with industry and government laboratories. For example, the National Institute for Nano-Engineering (NINE) was established as a national innovation hub through a government/university/industry collaboration and led by Sandia National Lab. The goal? To develop the next generation of innovation leaders for the United States.

I believe these changes will not be considered as “major” to most of us if they are supported and implemented at the college level. There has to be intentional and clear promotion as well as facilitation in all aspects of the college. Furthermore, these are not major changes because they will not affect everyone’s day-to-day activities — all university research cannot be 100 percent transformative research. We still need solid incremental advances to provide consistent and stable contributions to science, technology, human health and medicine, the environment, and the economy. A combination of low-risk, incremental advances and high-risk, innovative approaches will allow our profession to continue to provide both stable and significant benefits to society.