- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If any region or, for that matter, if the United States, wants to remain a global technology leader, then two conditions are necessary: We must have a competitive workforce, and we must do a much better job of encouraging entrepreneurs to commercialize the technological discoveries made in our federal and university laboratories.

America has refined the art of national hand-wringing over the low support for science and math studies in our K-12 curriculum. Various programs have been supported in fits and starts over the years, but, in truth, our results on a global scale are still second rate.

The same might be said of technology transfer. We have gingerly worked at extracting technology discoveries from our federal and university research laboratories through out-licensing, and we have created offices of technology transfer. But the concept has never received a full embrace, and with very few exceptions the offices remain small and woefully underfunded. These issues beg for substantive long-term solutions; they also raise the question of whether there might be some shortcuts available. We believe we have found one.

The Washington region draws 1,500 to 2,000 post-doctoral fellows annually to do research in some 30 federal laboratories, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. An equal number become fellows at local universities. Fellowships are extremely competitive, with up to 10 applicants for a single fellowship. These are our best and brightest, new generation research scientists.

Fellows spend one to four years working on some of the world’s thorniest problems in such cutting edge fields as neuropsychology, astrophysics, biomedical engineering and radio wave telecommunication. When their fellowships end, most of them drift away with the ultimate goal of finding an academic position. After all, it is a world they know well and one in which they have enjoyed significant success and recognition.

Unfortunately, there is an academic job shortage nationwide. A 2005 Sigma Xi publication, “Doctors Without Orders,” concluded that “growth in the number of science and engineering postdocs over the past decade (2.8 percent per year) has outstripped the rate of increase in the number of full-time science and engineering faculty positions (0.8 percent per year)…Most of the postdocs we surveyed will probably not become faculty members at a research university. Indeed, they will likely end up outside of academia altogether.”

Herein lays an opportunity for a serendipitous matching of the supply and demand sides of the equation. Our most highly vetted scientists are in need of alternative career options.And, in order to retain our standing as a technology leader, we need constant commercialization of new scientific ideas backed by an entrepreneurial spirit.

An unusual consortium of organizations is cooperating in order to put this theory to the test. The City of Rockville, Montgomery County, and Maryland economic development and workforce organizations have joined with regional and national science organizations including the Technology Council of Maryland, MD BIO, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Research Council. This group is partnering with federal research laboratories to offer Washington area federal lab post docs a day-long opportunity to consider non-academic career options and to meet prospective industry employers. This association of government and scientific agencies is so unusual that AAAS is holding it and the conference up as a national model.

The event highlights the life of the entrepreneur with a keynote address by Carol Nacy, founder and CEO of Sequella Inc., a Maryland biotechnology company that is leading the fight against infectious diseases. Ms. Nacy is also a former federal laboratory postdoctoral fellow. Panel sessions include information on three career tracks: entrepreneurial, traditional and alternative. The entrepreneurial panel encourages attendees to consider starting a company with their own discoveries or by licensing someone else’s technology.The traditional track is for individuals who wish to practice their science in a job created by an existing company. The alternative track is for those who want to apply their science in fields such as science policy, science writing, financial analysis, intellectual property and non-profit management. The attendees will also get advice on interviewing for an industry position, an experience most have never had, and on reorienting their resumes toward the private sector.

The conference venue is at capacity with more than 330 postdoctoral fellows and 30 companiesregisteredforthe conference. This strong showing of support for a new idea is proof that many constituencies can work together to move the region and the nation along in its goal of remaining a worldwide technology leader.

Sally Sternbach is executive director of Rockville Economic Development Inc. (REDI), and since 2003 has led the public-private partnership which was formed in 1997 by the City of Rockville.


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