Introducing Jason Owen-Smith, joining our faculty with a courtesy appointment

August 10, 2015

The Ford School is delighted to announce that a number of faculty members will join our community this fall. To introduce them to the Ford School community, we’re running weekly Q&As throughout the summer that touch on their policy and personal interests alike.

Here’s Jason Owen-Smith, professor of sociology, director of the Barger Leadership Institute, director of the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science, and now a courtesy professor at the Ford School, on understanding the public value of financial investments in scientific research, the portfolio of investments that will allow us to develop the society of our dreams, grants for undergraduates seeking to move the dial on problems they’re passionate about, and more.

Q. Tell us about your work—what do you study?

Owen-Smith: My work tries to measure, analyze, and understand the public value of federal and other financial investments in scientific research conducted on campuses like this one. I try to understand what’s good about that research, how it works, why it works, and how we can improve it. Unlike almost every other area of policy, this is one that lacks a systematic evidence base. There’s a good bit of debate about whether we’re oversupplying or undersupplying the scientific workforce in the United States, for example. Some say we are, and some say we’re not, but there’s no good way to adjudicate it. We have lots of case studies—good, rich, qualitative data—and anecdotes but we don’t have much in the way of comprehensive empirical data that can be used to analyze the effects of investments in science, and I think we should.

Q. What inspires you? Angers you? Or keeps you motivated to pursue your work?

Owen-Smith: I have a strong sense that there is great value in institutions like this one—both economic and social, tangible and intangible. I find current policy, and particularly funding debates at the federal level, depressing. There’s a tendency to oversimplify and reduce scientific research to its monetary impacts, and Congress has repeatedly made efforts to defund the social sciences and undermine the peer review system. I want to be able to inform those questions, and to answer other questions, too. For example, we spend the vast majority of our R&D funds on the biomedical sciences. So we’re investing heavily in health, which seems good, but perhaps underinvesting in other areas like the behavioral sciences, physics, and climate science. We don’t actually know if that’s the right portfolio of investments to support the kind of society we want to have.

Q. What courses will you teach in the coming year--either at the Ford School, or elsewhere in the University?

Owen-Smith: In the coming year, none. And that’s because I have two administrative appointments. I’m director of the Barger Leadership Institute in LS&A and of the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science (IRIS) in the Survey Research Center.

Q. The Barger Leadership Institute?

Owen-Smith: The Barger Leadership Institute (BLI) was funded by a group of alumni led by Dave Barger, the former CEO of Jet Blue. The mandate is to develop experience-based educational opportunities for undergraduates—in the classroom, and beyond. We do that in a number of ways, like providing grants to undergraduates who propose creative projects that move the dial on problems in the world that they’re passionate about.

Q. And what's IRIS? 

Owen-Smith: The Institute for Research on Innovation & Science (IRIS) grew out of the recession, when Congress put a lot of money into research and development under ARRA. That investment came with new reporting requirements which led several of the federal agencies to set up the Star Metrics program.  Under that program universities shared record-level data about how they spent federal grants with the NIH, which returned reports to them that could be used for compliance purposes. Universities reported on who they hired, what they bought, etc., and those data had great value for trying to understand what grants yield—in terms of training people and making new discoveries possible. The data were potentially really valuable for research, but NIH wasn’t able to make them available. So in a pilot project, several of us worked with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation to find ways to securely make the data available to researchers. That CIC initiative was called UMETRICS and it included a really important partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. The UMETRICS initiative was so successful that the Alfred P. Sloan and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations funded IRIS to take that successful pilot and make it a permanent part of the infrastructure for research universities.

Q. Can you recommend any books for students who want to learn more about these topics?

Owen-Smith: A recent book that I think is relevant is The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti. It doesn’t talk specifically about scientific expertise at universities, but it does talk about how people and jobs cluster, and many people and jobs cluster around universities. I also tend to read books by college presidents. There’s a recent one by Michael Crow, who is the President of ASU, on Designing the New American University, and another by Jonathan Cole, the ex-provost of Columbia, called The Great American University (about the evolution of the research university). I’m also a fan of Robert K. Merton, who wrote a 1930s-era article on “The Unintended Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” Merton attempts to answer why, when we create policies to do things, they often end up doing the opposite of what we’d like them to.

Q. Reading anything for pleasure?

Owen-Smith: I’ve just come back from vacation, so I can actually answer that question. Right now I’ve got open on my Kindle (which is how I read most things) a book called The Providence of Fire. I have a soft spot for cheesy science fiction and fantasy, and it’s a grand-epic science fiction trilogy.

Q. Where did you head for vacation? Do anything fun?

Owen-Smith: I love the water. I grew up spending lots of time in the Atlantic Ocean—in North Carolina and Delaware. Since moving to Michigan, I’ve learned to love the Lake Michigan coast, particularly far enough south that you can swim in it. I’m just back from a vacation on the west side of the state where we got a cabin on the lake and kayaked. I have two children, a son who is ten and a daughter who is six, and they very much enjoy the lake as well.


Check out Jason's bio and head over to Twitter to welcome him to the Ford School.