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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

archive for November, 2008


by ~ November 23, 2008

One of the most baffling characteristics of human nature is the tendency for apparently normal individuals can exhibit both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde traits depending on social circumstance. We’re somehow shocked to discover that among the predators in online chat rooms and the clients of exotic escort agencies are some of our trusted advisers, friends, and neighbors.

Corporate malfeasance cases put a spin on this issue, because many of the perpetrators accused of malfeasance feel they’ve done nothing wrong, even after conviction.

And in a sense, they’re right.

In a corporate setting, individuals are continually asked to balance self-interest with company interest and (for the few who bother to think about it) with societal interest. Given the complex environment in which large corporations exist, the “right” action is seldom obvious. Frequently, corporate malfeasance is as much the result of “organizational frailty” (a term I just invented to correspond to human frailty) as it is of willful malicious intent. That is, there’s only an illusion of conscious will in most of these cases. In short, they’re problems of collaboration and trust.

The New York Times today reported how the culture at Citigroup led the company to the brink of ruin. According to the article:

To some, the misery at Citigroup is no surprise. Lynn Turner, a former chief accountant with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the bank’s balkanized culture and pell-mell management made problems inevitable.

“If you’re an entity of this size,” he said, “if you don’t have controls, if you don’t have the right culture and you don’t have people accountable for the risks that they are taking, you’re Citigroup.”

The following excerpt from the article will likely sound familiar to anyone familiar with office politics: Continue reading »


by ~ November 20, 2008

Earlier this week, I got a phone call from Steve Aldrich and Jim Newcomb, respectively CEO and director of research for Bio Economic Research Associates, a private research and advisory firm.

They’d read my paper on risk and synthetic biology and thought my characterization of their report on synthetic biology, “Genome Synthesis and Design Futures: Implications for the U.S. Economy,” was unfair.

The larger issue that our disagreement is based on — that is, how to pay proper fealty to scientific uncertainty — is at the core of my discontent with how technology innovations are assessed for risk and benefit.

So I told them I would write about our disagreement here. This way, they have an opportunity to respond, and maybe we can get a discussion going on the subject.

Here is what I wrote:

Of the most concern in the context of risk and governance are the reports that uncritically support synthetic biology, as they encourage development and commercial release with little or no acknowledgment of the degree of scientific uncertainty that surrounds the endeavor. A 174-page report on synthetic biology published by Bio-Economic Research Associates in 2007 and funded by the Department of Energy (which itself has invested heavily in synthetic biology research), contained but a single, three-quarter-page discussion of the limitations of the engineering paradigm as applied to living systems. Giving such short shrift to a topic that is still under deep consideration in the broader scientific community lends an air of certainty to a highly uncertain endeavor. Such under-representation has real significance from the perspective of investment and economic risk, as well as from that of health and the environment.

[Italics added by me; they aren’t in the paper.] Continue reading »


by ~ November 20, 2008

I don’t know what kind of planetary alignment took place over the past week with regards to synthetic biology, but whatever it was, I like it.

Over the course of five days in November, from Thursday the 13th to Monday the 17th, four conversations about synthetic biology took place. They involved everyone from non-profit leaders to engineers, social scientists, biologists and government regulators. We need more open-minded, smart people from many sectors thinking and talking about this technology, and pronto.

What on earth am I talking about? If you’ve never heard of synthetic biology, you aren’t alone. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, less than one in 10 (9%) Americans say they have heard some or a lot about synthetic biology — and a whopping 67% have heard nothing at all. [Edited in response to first comment. Never let it be said that I do not listen to my critics.]

But venture capitalists, multinational chemical, energy and “life science” companies, and just about every government agency you can name are already investing millions of dollars to develop commercial synthetic biology applications. According to one report, the research market in 2006 was already $600 million, and “the potential for growth in the next 10 years is projected to expand this market to over $3.5B.”

Proponents and opponents and everyone in-between agree these applications will have a direct and significant effect on our lives and on the planet. (I’ve put links to good/accessible background reading at the end of this post.)

The first event was on Thursday the 13th, a day-long “teach-in” in San Francisco, held by and for civil society groups and NGOs, which as far as I can tell was organized by the ETC Group in Montreal. It was private, so there’s not much else to say about it — I found a link about it on the Food First site. If you want more information, contact Jim Thomas at the ETC Group.

The second, on Friday the 14th, was hosted by the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which was a conversation with — well, it was with me, actually, and Rick Weiss, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (you may know him from his previous incarnation as the Washington Post science writer). The occasion was the publication of my paper on synthetic biology, which you can read or download here. Continue reading »


by ~ November 17, 2008

My next column in Strategy+Business (coming out in Winter 2009) will be about the need to rewrite our innovation policies from scratch. I strongly believe that we need to move beyond simplistic “greasing of the wheels” for corporations via tax credits and patent reform, and look more closely at how to create a whole new ecosystem in which innovation — and particularly, scientific and technological innovation — can flourish to everyone’s benefit.

In that regard, Barack Obama’s call for a return to scientific integrity is cause for tremendous hope for those who have spent eight long years battling the anti-science, anti-innovation era of the outgoing administration.

The very first item on the Obama campaign’s science fact sheet, which was published in September 2008, states that Obama’s science-friendly science policy will ensure that “decisions that can be informed by science are made on the basis of the strongest possible evidence.”

It goes on to say that the Obama administration will (among many other things):

  • Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds to key positions;
  • Take advantage of the work of the National Academies to identify the federal government positions that require a strong science and technology background;
  • Ensure independent, non-ideological, expert science and technology advisory committees; and (last but certainly not least from Hybrid Vigor’s perspective);
  • Actively encourage multidisciplinary research and education, noting that “innovation often arises from combining the tools, techniques, and insights from researchers in different fields.”

Yes! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! That last one even takes a page straight out of Hybrid Vigor’s mission statement.

But … I’m concerned that social scientists are not specifically mentioned anywhere in the policy fact sheet, either in spirit or in fact, not even in the last item. This is a serious omission as well as risky one, and unfortunately it is all too common in discussions of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary research.

Social scientists can — and should — provide a critical bridge between innovation and the people that the products of innovation purport to serve. They can help policy makers think about the social and cultural context for research priorities and decisions in a way that technologists cannot, making sure that the “strongest possible evidence” that scientists provide is also the evidence that is most relevant to the decision at hand. Continue reading »


by ~ November 13, 2008

I recently a story about software patents so goofy (to me, anyhow — YMMV) that I had to share it.The story was from the IT Examiner, titled, “US throws out most software patents.”

The hook was a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington DC. Instead of automatically granting a patent for a business practice, the court decided there would be a specific testing procedure to determine how patentable is the process in question.

As the story put it, this is “a nearly complete reversal” of a judgment of 1998, which started the stampede for patenting business practices.
All I can say is, About damn time! Here’s the link to my extremely cranky New York Times column on this very same subject, written in 1999.

So here’s the goofy bit: The reporter wrote,

The decision is great for open source advocates. But it could mean a permanent change in the value of intangible assets, which comprise approximately 70 per cent of the average high-tech company’s market capitalisation. With the world’s economy sliding downhill at an increasing pace each day, this decision could cost US companies billions of dollars.

Oh, please. First of all, patents comprise only a fraction of that “70 percent” value for intangibles, and business practice patents are only a fraction of those.

And second, those patents should never have been granted in the first place, and everybody knew it. Continue reading »


by ~ November 13, 2008

I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me almost two years to post this item — I saved a draft of it in January 2007, yikes — but even though I can’t find the link to the original story (The Korea Times, 21 Jan 2007), I thought it was worth posting anyway. It’s great food for thought, and relevant far beyond its immediate subject. Certainly it something to consider for companies who consider employees to be important intangible assets.

Back then, Lee Jeong-bae, a senior consultant at South Korea’s LG Economic Research Institute, said he thought he knew why Korean firms have failed to produce such iconic devices as Apple’s iPod and Motorola’s RAZR, despite their technological expertise: he said they lack “T-shaped” people — people who have an area of deep interest or expertise (the vertical part of the T), but also have empathy for and ability in other areas.

“To create innovative products, we have to secure insights not only into the products but also into their business opportunities by having an observant and empathetic view of the world. Only T-shaped people, who have well-rounded personalities and broad interests, can obtain such viewpoints. Sophisticated engineers who do not understand the market and customers will never devise [the products] which have a shot at becoming a grand slam.”


by ~ November 13, 2008

It is not always happy-making to be ahead of one’s time.

On Tuesday, the New York Times published package of articles that explored new genetic research and new ideas of what a gene is.

Much of the package was based on the findings of the ENCODE study, which was sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The upshot of ENCODE, which was published about a year and a half ago, in June 2007, was pretty straightforward: the human genome is not a “tidy collection of independent genes,” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single protein, which in turn is linked to a single function, like the production of an enzyme.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways will challenge scientists ”to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do.”

The lead story in the package notes this perspective, writing that scientists “no longer conceive of a typical gene as a single chunk of DNA encoding a single protein,” and quoting one of them as saying, simply, “It cannot work that way.”

YES! I was so excited that this issue was finally going to get some attention. Not only was one of the central themes of my book, Intervention, but I too wrote a column about ENCODE for the New York Times — called “A Challenge to Gene Theory: A Tougher Look at Biotech” — right after the results were published, in July 2007.

In it, I asked what (to me) is the most obvious and important question, but it was addressed nowhere in the NYT package: Continue reading »