Image: Cash, images_of_money CC BY 2.0
Last week I went up to our campus conference centre to see my 11-year old son’s display at the school district’s “Invention Convention”. I found a room full of students showing off their clever inventions, most of them bubbling with energy. They had on display, not just their inventions, but searches for prior art, pricing strategies, marketing plans – the works. It was the second such event I’d been to in a month, actually; at the school’s open house, there was a Grade Eight Marketplace where the students were actually selling the gadgets they’d designed and made. The latter event, I’ve learned, won a National Entrepreneurial Award. All this was clearly supposed to impress me and make me proud, and in a way it did. But it also saddened me.
It’s not that I object to kids learning about entrepreneurship. Some of them may well become entrepreneurs, starting small businesses or patenting inventions. I’m as eager as the next person for innovations to come (can I have my self-driving electric car now, please?), and I don’t mind someone getting reasonably rich selling them to me*. But what I see, and what makes me sad, is what I’ve come to think of as the fetishization of entrepreneurship. I see the celebration of “innovation”, but always in the restricted sense of a gadget that can be patented. I see the celebration of the profit motive. I see the placing of the businessperson on a pedestal, above the politician or the social worker or the schoolteacher. Above all, I see these things in places that distress me. This isn’t my first parenting brush with entrepreneurship: five years ago, my son’s after-school program had a running entrepreneurial theme, culminating in an annual sale that has left me a lovely collection of duct-tape wallets and painted pebbles. Why do six-year-olds need to sell people duct-tape wallets?
I shouldn’t exaggerate. My son’s school has volunteer activities too, and science fairs, and all kinds of other things, even if they don’t seem to have quite the profile that’s given to entrepreneurship. And society overcorrects, always; so if entrepreneurship was once neglected in the schools (and I don’t remember any exposure to it in my own K-12 schooling), perhaps the pendulum is just now at its other extreme.
I think this bothers me more than it otherwise would because entrepreneurship gets fetishized in our universities, too. Perhaps it’s because the business school always has the nicest new building and the deepest pool of alumni money. Or perhaps it’s because university Boards always wind up heavily stacked with people from the corporate world. For whatever reason, my university (like many) has an Office of Research Services that’s eager to help me patent the results of my research, or to do “technology transfer” (which sounds noble, but just means to sell someone the right to industrialize the results of my research). I don’t give them much business, of course, as a distinctly basic-science evolutionary ecologist, but I pay the same overhead to support them as everyone else**. To make this worse, major granting agencies indulge in the fetish, too. My province has an agency called the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, and once upon a time, it would fund me – but now, if you aren’t working towards patents, spinoffs, and the like, they’re completely uninterested. NBIF, like a lot of agencies, has decided that the reason to do research is to drive economic growth, and that only an immediately saleable new product or a new company can do that. This is so jawdroppingly shortsighted that it’s difficult to know where to start pushing back.
So now I’ve gone from elementary-school duct tape wallets through university administration to the politics and economics of knowledge and industry. I think it’s all connected, in one big self-satisfied hymn-sing to Mammon. Do I admire someone who’s had a brilliant insight and commercialized it adeptly? I suppose; but I admire rather more someone who’s had a brilliant insight and not commercialized it.
I don’t need us to pretend that entrepreneurship isn’t a thing – but do you suppose we could acknowledge that it’s not the most important of all things, and especially that it’s not the most admirable of all things?
© Stephen Heard May 29, 2018
*^Although I very much hope that the “reasonably” part will come to pass as a result of strongly progressive taxation sharing the profits with the rest of society.
**^Which would be fine if I could compensate by overusing the staff whose job it is to help me publish, or to do science communication, or to share my work with museums. And just as soon as those people exist, I’ll call them.
Canada desperately needs more entrepreneurship, both of the type that drives big new ideas and the mundane type (dry cleaners, etc.). Our economy is dominated by rent-seeking huge businesses, governments, and tax-supported institutions like schools, hospitals, etc. To pay for all that we need small businesses that create jobs. Sadly, most of the rhetoric about supporting small businesses is driven by those who reduce their taxes with personal corporations. But genuine small and medium-sized businesses create jobs, drive our economy, and make the jobs the rest of us hold possible.
If you talk to people who’ve started their own businesses, they usually talk about things like “having a dream.” I’m not saying they don’t care about money, but it’s typically not the dominant focus initially. But once the business is sold to someone else, the profit motive usually dominates all else. This is why successful businesses often end up with a huge battle between founders and the professional management the founders hire.
If the world stops needing as much of the things that Canada can dig out of the ground, we’ll need a lot more entrepreneurship to support our economy.
Thanks, I’m glad to have this perspective here. One thing I worry about is that my viewpoint is so strongly coloured by my career path that I’m just not understanding the societal good of this fetishization. And to some degree I think you’re suggesting that this is in part a reaction to underemphasis on entrepreneurship in the past – which is consistent with my own lack of school exposure to it. Thanks for the pushback.
I tend to agree with you – I think universities and funders should have a lot less focus on the money side of things and more on fostering enquiring minds. The entrepreneurs will turn up by themselves.
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I wonder how common these types of school initiatives are. I never had any exposure or initiation to entrepreneurship whatsoever and there has never been any such things at my kids’ schools either. In fact, as far as I am aware, in Quebec, the school system does not have anything at all related to the economy or money or business, which I think is a shame because we are all going to have to deal with these things in one way or another.
I heard last week that new professors in the UNSW Sydney business school get paid AUD$500,000 per year. I am sure that’s because of the quality of their research though… 🙂
I read your blog often but have never commented before (cell biology PostDoc, UK). I sort of agree with you that entrepreneurship shouldn’t be pushed onto everyone and shouldn’t be seen as the only/main reason to do research. However, in my field of research (vaguely cancer related) we often get money from medical charities and even if not, often put such things in potential impact statements/conclusions to papers, “this mechanism/protein could be targeted for disease X”. So I think that for my kind of field it is right that IP etc is encouraged and help made available. In some ways I feel we have a duty to if something looks really promising disease management wise. Especially since (see above) no one says I’m researching this disease just because I think it’s interesting.
Taking a finding from a paper and getting it to a point where a (likely) Phasma company will be interested (and they are necessary as costs spiral at that point, clinical trials etc) is a big step, lots of funding agencies are specifically making money available for this step and as long as it’s not to the exclusion of basic work I think it’s a useful thing.
Also, since 7/8 startups fail I don’t think (many) go down this route for the money!
In conclusion to my rambles, I agree it wouldn’t be the only end game but I think (in perhaps some fields more than others) it’s important that these services exist and researchers are encouraged to make use of them if appropriate.
Thanks for commenting and thanks for this perspective. This makes sense to me, and you’ve drawn a nice distinction between entrepreneurship just as a profit motive and entrepreneurship as a mechanism for getting research deployed for public good. That sounds like an important point to me.
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