The Endless Frontier Act and charting a direction for technology policy

One of the long-standing issues in technology policy is improving the process of turning new technologies into economic activities. While often referred to as technology transfer, the concept of “translation research” has taken hold as the key component of the innovation model. It is at the heart of the so-called “valley of death” where, in the linear model of advancing from the results of basic research to technology development to commercial product, the process falls short. Under this model, funding is available from mostly public sources for the first stages. Basic and some applied research is seen as a public good which by its very nature cannot attract adequate private funding. Private funding is available for the later stages of technology development when a working prototype or some other form of proof of concept is available and a company can take the technology to a commerializable scale. The lack of funding for the transition stage [the translation of an idea to a product] creates this valley of death where the technology is no longer a pure public good nor a purely private good (capable of generating a return on investment). [Note for my critique of the linear model, see here.]

A key issue then is who should fund and undertake this translation research.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators [Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Todd Young (R-IN); Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI)] introduced a bill to increase investment in technology development and commercialization. The Endless Frontier Act (S. 3832 and H.R. 6978) would expand the National Science Foundation (NSF) into the National Science and Technology Foundation by creating a Directorate for Technology with a budget of $100 billion over five years ($20 billion per year) to fund university-based technology development (see summary here). [Note that the entire FY2020 NSF budget is $8.3 billion.]

While the goal of increasing investment in technology development and commercialization is laudable, questions have been raised as to whether the Act is the best structure to achieve this goal.

One such critique is by three long-standing respected technology policy experts, Patrick Windham, Christopher Hill, David Cheney. [In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that they are long-time friends and colleagues.] Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, their article “Improving the Endless Frontier Act” argues to let NSF be NSF and not task it with something beyond its ken. They argue instead for an expansion of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-like organizations within mission-oriented agencies.

The heart of their argument is the difference between science and engineering and the role of the research university in the innovation process:

“In the first place, most radical new technologies in recent decades have come from solutions-driven engineering work funded by agencies such as DARPA and NASA or from companies driven by market opportunities. On the government side, DARPA has played a decisive role in developing advanced materials, the personal computer, the internet, and more recently advanced prosthetics and RNA vaccines. Several government organizations, in particular the Naval Research Laboratory, were central to the development of the Global Positioning System. Government technology agencies draw on important fundamental research funded by NSF, and they themselves also fund additional university research in support of their technological goals—but as part of larger R&D programs that fund a wide range of R&D performers, including companies that often go on to commercialize these new technologies. University discoveries contribute to such work, but university research alone did not create most of the radical new technologies of our time.

Although the incentives and capabilities at universities and at NSF itself are well-aligned with basic research and open publication, universities are not equipped to undertake large applied engineering projects, much less to translate the resulting new technologies into products and processes. Putting universities in the lead on technology development misunderstands both their role and their capabilities in the innovation system. It would also risk diluting the valuable basic research role that universities and NSF play.”

I have been supporter of the “civilian DARPA” approach going back to my days as a staffer to Senator Jeff Bingaman. I remember well (as will the article’s authors) the debate between the Advanced Civilian Technology Agency (ACTA) and the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) in what became the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988. For a number of reasons, the program approach (ATP) prevailed over the agency approach (ACTA).

Since that battle, thinking has shifted from the creation of a single civilian DARPA to multiple agency/technology entities. Over the years there have been numerous calls for the creation of DARPA-like entities to address technologies ranging from education to cybersecurity.

As the article notes, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the Department of Energy is an example of a successful mission-oriented entity. Created in 2009, ARPA-E funds (according to their website) “high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.” Funding spans the range of energy technologies from energy generation to storage to use.

One must be careful however not to assume that any DARPA-like sounding agency in fact operates like DARPA. An example is the question whether the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is truly a DARPA-like entity. Unlike DARPA or ARPA-E, BARDA has a much more limited technological focus. Part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, BARDA “supports the transition of medical countermeasures such as vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics from research through advanced development towards consideration for approval by the FDA and inclusion into the Strategic National Stockpile.” Think anthrax, Ebola, Zika as well as COVID-19. [It should be noted that DARPA has an active Biological Technologies Office.]

BARDA also has unique authorities. It has both a R&D and an operational role. In its R&D role BARDA not only provides funding for development of new vaccines and other medical countermeasures, it also helps guide those products through the FDA approval process and the manufacturing scale-up phase. Operationally it is the lead government agency for procurement and stockpiling of these products. Thus, it is a unique combination of developer and customer.

Given the challenge of designing a successful organization, I would recommend that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) be tasked to undertake a more detailed analysis of DARPA, ARPA-E, and BARDA to distill lessons learned. A starting point might be a re-review of a 30-year-old but still relevant discussion of the underlying issues by Alic and Robyn entitled “Designing a Civilian DARPA.”

In addition to increasing DARPA funding and creating DARPA-like (ARPA-E like) agencies, the authors proposal set up a Technology Frontier pilot program in NSF and Increasing funding for the existing Manufacturing USA institutes.

I strongly support increased funding for the Manufacturing USA institutes.

But I’m a little unsure of the need for a Technology Frontier pilot at NSF.

Somewhat surprisingly, the article (nor as far as I can tell any other discussion of the Act) never mentions existing NSF programs geared toward doing exactly what the Act hopes to accomplish. NSF’s Engineering Research Center (ERC) program has been around since 1985. ERCs are university-based, multi-institution consortia that undertake interdisciplinary research and technology translation activities. According to NSF, the program has funded 75 ERCs and resulted in over 200 spinoff companies and over 850 patents. Some ERC outcomes include minimally invasive surgery technologies and high-speed internet technologies. Recently NSF announced $104 million in funding over 5 years to support 4 new centers in the areas of cryogenics for biological systems, electric vehicle re-charging technologies, quantum networks, and Internet of Things for precision agriculture.

A few years ago, the National Academies did a study on the future of the NSF’s Engineering Research Centers. Their report called for shifting the direction of these centers to transdisciplinary convergent research focused on the Grand Challenges for Engineering. NSF embraced this concept, embedding convergent research  into to its plans for funding Gen-4 Engineering Research Centers. NSF  also established a Convergence Accelerator (C-Accel) program focused on transitioning research  into practice. The 2019 program pilot provided $39 million to 43 teams in two topic areas: Harnessing the Data Revolution and the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier.

Rather than start up another new pilot program, I would suggest building upon and expanding the ERC/C-Accel programs.

One final point. The authors also critique the proposal for pre-determining which technologies should be supported. I agree that it is all too tempting to build political support by targeting the hot new technologies of the day as opposed to letting the funding follow the technology:

“The US government actually has a better way to identify and fund promising new areas of research and technology. National leaders set overall priorities while researchers and agency experts scan for new scientific and technical opportunities and propose new R&D directions. Then agency leaders and, for big initiatives, the White House and Congress vet these ideas and decide which to support. The result is a flexible federal system that identifies new opportunities, reviews them, and creates a diverse and high-quality portfolio of R&D programs.

The top-down portion—statements of overall national priorities—consists of annual White House memoranda on presidential R&D priorities (including one for fiscal year 2021), agency planning documents, and congressional laws. The bottom-up portion is a remarkable American strength. Instead of looking only at current technologies, researchers and agency technical experts constantly scan for the next big things in their fields and propose new initiatives. Sometimes agency directors directly evaluate these ideas and decide which to support, as was the case with the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Sometimes NSF workshops and National Academies meetings test and refine new R&D proposals before policy leaders consider them, as with Academies reports that help set priorities in chemistry, space sciences, and other fields. Some of the resulting investments are large, such as multiagency initiatives in high-performance computing and nanotechnology, while many others are smaller or even experimental “seedling” projects. By funding a wide range of existing and new R&D areas—funding an overall R&D portfolio—federal agencies do not just develop today’s technologies; they also begin investing in the technologies of the future. Confining technology development support to a relative short list of predetermined areas that can only be updated every four years or so seems sure to result in a system far less dynamic than the current one.”

[I would just add a note that this is related to but does not directly addresses the other debate over R&D funding: curiosity-driven versus use-driven research. See also Pasteur’s Quadrant and Highly Integrative Basic and Responsive (HIBAR) research.]

Let me conclude by lauding the efforts of Senators Schumer and Young and Representatives Khanna and Gallagher. It is my hope that the Endless Frontier Act will spur action toward increasing funding for the critical task of commercializing new technologies. It is also my hope that the Act will spur a vigorous and productive debate over how to best channel that investment. The article by Windham, Hill and Cheney is an important part of that debate.

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