Thoughts on Lazowska's Seattle Comments

Over at TechFlash there is an article about some words Ed Lazowska, professor extraordinaire here in the computer science & engineering department at UW, had for the Seattle tech scene (see also xconomy):

"It seems to me that the issue with this state is that we are one big happy family in which everybody is doing extremely well. Everyone's college program is above average. And everyone's company is above average. And everyone's venture fund is above average. And if you go a little bit more above average than the next guy, then they get all Dirty Harry and whack you down. It is a state of Whack-a-Mole.... I worry that those who excel, and excel honestly, aren't celebrated in this state."


"We think of ourselves as being in the innovation big leagues, where in fact we are in the minors compared to those who are in the really big leagues like Boston and the Bay Area," said Lazowska, who cited the recent bizjournals report showing that Seattle ranks fifth as a technology hub.

(though that study is whack. Washington D.C. at number 2? L.A. not in the top ten?)

Now I'm just an outsider to the tech scene (and nothing I say here should be construed as ever being endorsed, associated with, or even vaguely connected to my employer, the University of Washington), but I can think of at least one very good reason that Seattle is behind Boston and the Bay Area: its university system. Now, the University of Washington is a great university, our medical school is superb, and there are quite a few rather good departments across campus, but....

Look at the Bay Area: you've got three world class research universities, Stanford, Cal, and UCSF along with a not insignificant number of other good universities in the area. The Bay Area also draws heavily from the entire University of California system which is a pretty incredible set of schools. Boston has an even more impressive ecosystem of universities, including of course the research powerhouses of MIT and Harvard.

Now look at Seattle. Major research university: University of Washington. That's it. Sure there is Washington State over on the other side of the state, but that's like being on the other side of the moon. No offense to the other fine Seattle Universities, but Seattle University or Seattle Pacific University aren't in the same ballpark as UW.

No matter what you think about the actual values of the education afforded at large research universities, to me it is at least clear that these are important if for no other reason than they attract smart and motivated people to your area.

So, if Seattle wants to compete seriously with the big boys, what it really needs is competition for the University of Washington (and no I don't say that just because I don't have a traditional tenure track position here at UW. Okay well maybe a little :) ) A while back there was a movement to get a branch campus of the UW in Everett, a town about 30 minutes north of Seattle. This campus would have a focus on science and engineering. This is a step in the right direction, I suppose. But Everett, I'm sorry, is just not anywhere close to where the tech scene is happening in Seattle. In short it is very hard for me to imagine a tech corridor from Seattle and Redmond up to Everett. Much more logical would be either closer to Seattle itself, or on the East Side where the 40K tech employer Microsoft sits.

Further it's not really clear to me that another large public university is the answer. First of all the state of Washington is abysmal in its funding of higher education (they cut the funding for the UW by 22 percent this year, and compensated that by allowing the university to raise it's tuition by 14 percent in the next two years. State funding is now only the fourth largest source of funding for UW. In the long run this may end up good, in that a model much closer to schools like the University of Michigan where state funding is not as essential may be the new model for funding UW.) Second because UW is the big dog in the state, it is very sensitive to any encroachment by other state universities. My impression is that UW views its branch campuses in Bothell and Tacoma as nuisances more than as a part of a healthy university system.

I'd argue that what is really needed is another elite private university. Where is UW's Stanford, I ask? Washington Institute of Technology anyone (oops that names been Pennsylvania!)


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Lets start our own University.

By jeff davis (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink

I don't think that starting a traditional university is the way to go. I believe that the traditional university has outlived its usefulness with on-demand education (soon to be available as @AMa95 on Twitter). And the research university no longer represents a responsible use of government funds - it is too bloated with bureaucracy (>50% overhead? you're kidding). Revolutionary architectures of research communities would enable funding for more scientists. Professional trade-school style training with annual educational requirements to maintain certification and improve skills would improve compensation to the technical staff. Less frequent, more bottom-line oriented reviews of PI performance with significant positive and negative consequences would ensure that meaningful work is being done (at least on the government teat).

And the research university no longer represents a responsible use of government funds - it is too bloated with bureaucracy (>50% overhead? you're kidding).

As opposed to private corporations--among the handful that I'm familiar with, overhead rates well in excess of 100% are common, because unlike universities, an outfit like Lucent or Merck or Lockheed Martin has to show a profit. I'm sure there are efficiencies to be gained at research universities, but they are still a bargain. Witness the amount of Big Pharma research done in university labs--why would they muck about with academia if they could do it as cheaply in house?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink

Big pharma partner with academia for short term pilot studies before committing to make an investment in house, high risk/high reward projects where they cannot take on all of the risk, or projects where they would otherwise be unable to access the patient population they need.

I never said that private corporations were the answer, by the way, I said that research communities with revolutionary architectures are needed.

And yes, Sean Mach's notes will be available (once Twitter embraces an equation formatting standard (I suggest that you begin petitioning them now)).

In reply to Eric, in my industry, our burdened rates are typically 1.2-1.3x the cost of labor. They are more if you have to maintain a special purpose facility [but the government tries hard to keep that burden on themselves]. So, Big U. is effectively is a player in the market at the same level as the big federal contractors are.