It’s Time for Universities to Get More Nimble

9/2/10

“Early to bed,

Early to rise,

Makes a man healthy,

Wealthy and wise.”

Attempting to motivate their children to go to bed at a reasonable time, parents have for generations invoked these three time-honored rewards. Probably least compelling was the promise of health. Health is the absence of something–sickness–and is only fully appreciated when we do not have it. Yet, when we are really sick, health becomes our paramount concern. Few of us would choose to be a wealthy, wise man or woman if the price was advanced Alzheimer’s disease, terminal cancer, or crippling arthritis.

In this context, we have a major problem as a society. Despite our amazingly advanced technologies in communication, space travel, transportation, etc., we do not have technologies to keep us healthy. We cannot cure cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease or arthritis. Worse, cures are not even on the horizon. Why is it that our capacity to innovate in biomedical sciences seems to lag so dramatically behind our innovation capacity in aircraft design, for example?

As scientists employed as directors of an institute for biomedical innovation, we have to look closely at the impediments to improving health, and explore solutions. We are convinced that much of the answer can be found in our research universities, but they need to be re-structured. They need to be innovative in how they manage their science, as well as in how they perform it. This is no small challenge. Universities are without peer in their ability to discover the fundamental principles of science, and are responsible for much of the innovation in our society. The creativity and nimbleness in their science is not unfortunately matched by an equal creativity and nimbleness in administration and management. Although service innovation is now widely seen as contributing to society needs and economic growth as effectively as science innovation, universities in general continue to operate using time-honored and unchallenged principles. This has to change.

[Editor's Note: This post first appeared earlier today on the QB3 website. It is part of Reg Kelly's plan to write an occasional series of mini-essays on connected themes, rather than commenting on the news of the day.]

Regis Kelly is the director of the The California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at the University of California. Follow @

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