A year ago, the National Science Foundation set out to promote translation of the basic research it funds, forming its first new directorate in 30 years to do so. On the first anniversary, Science|Business assesses progress
With much fanfare, the Biden administration last March gave the US National Science Foundation an added mission, to accelerate translation of scientific discoveries from lab to market, with $1.5 billion in the 2023 financial year to get things moving.
On its first anniversary, the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) has taken steps to form broad industry/academic partnerships. Outsiders are watching the well-financed effort to see when actual results emerge and whether it will succeed in boosting US economic and technological competitiveness.
During the past year TIP has launched the NSF Engines programme aimed at spreading tech clusters throughout the US; a multi-agency partnership with the UK on a privacy prize challenge; and a cross-sector partnership with Ericsson, Intel, IBM, and Samsung, as part of a future of semiconductors initiative.
Following on from this, February saw the launch of a $60 million Accelerating Research Translation effort to help higher education institutions build up capacity to translate basic research outcomes into useful applications.
TIP is NSF’s first new directorate in more than 30 years and was established a few months before Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which in turn charged TIP with advancing US competitiveness through so-called “use-inspired” research and innovation with new partners, including private industry. The goal is to enhance US competitiveness and boost the science and technology economy.
“NSF needs to do a better job of engaging the full breadth and diversity of talent in all the different corners of the country,” said Erwin Gianchandani, TIP’s assistant director.
However, in a divided Congress, TIP and NSF as a whole didn’t get the funding President Joe Biden had hoped for. Congress raised NSF’s total budget by 12% - short of the 19% the Biden Administration had requested - to $9.87 billion for the 2023 financial year, which started on 1 October 2022.
The CHIPS ACT recommended $1.5 billion for 2023, rising to $4.1 billion annually by 2027. The appropriations legislation did not specify TIP’s funding level, but it likely will be lower than the request, according to the American Institute of Physics.
During its first year, TIP had a $450 million budget, much of it transferred from existing programmes that were brought under its umbrella, including the Convergence Accelerator, NSF Innovation Corps, Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer.
Gianchandani said TIP’s initial focus is on three areas: ecosystem building, technology translation including how to accelerate prototyping, and workforce development.
The NSF Engines programme received 700 concept outlines from more than 500 organisations, 40% of which had not previously received NSF funding. Gianchandani said that level of response, is “breathtaking.” The winners, to be announced in the autumn, could get up to $160 million for up to 10 years to fund development of regional technology clusters.
Project proposals run from artificial intelligence to advanced materials science and novel approaches to advanced energy utilisation and consumption. Gianchandani said that in reviewing the proposals, NSF also is looking for opportunities to team up applicants with similar concepts that are located close to each other, to magnify the effect of the research.
NSF Engines emphasises engaging consumers of research outcomes to help shape the research questions. It also focuses on prototyping and piloting, and translating research results into practice, entrepreneurship and workforce development. The aim is to prompt economic growth in areas of the US like Pittsburgh or Indianapolis, where innovation activities are only loosely connected. It also aims to engage those underserved in STEM such as historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Tribal colleges and universities.
“It’s really cross-cutting, which is something we’ve very excited about because it’s going to truly unlock innovation potential for many different regions,” Gianchandani said. “The Engines programme is a microcosm of getting science into public use more quickly.”
Evidence of the impact of TIP programmes will take some time to build, but some innovation experts say what they have seen so far is promising.
“In the first year it got itself set up, which isn’t an inconsiderable accomplishment,” said Charles Wessner, adjunct professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “It has been rapidly but effectively organised and it is moving money.”
The challenge for NSF, which is a challenge to any institution, is to do a new thing, Wessner said. It is good that NSF aims to get industry and universities to collaborate, and Gianchandani is an outstanding leader. “I think we’ll see significant progress,” said Wessner.
Not everyone thinks handing NSF - the home of basic research – the remit of promoting translation and commercialisation, is a good idea.
“The risk here is having the NSF take on a mission that may represent a culture very different than what it’s done for more than 70 years,” said Ernest Moniz, former US Secretary of Energy from 2013 to 2017, at a conference last November in Washington, DC. “We have to be very attentive to make sure that the goose that lays the golden eggs [basic research] is preserved.”
NSF remains committed to basic research, countered Mike Pozmantier, programme manager of the NSF Convergence Accelerator, an existing programme that was brought into TIP. The accelerator focuses on merging ideas, approaches, and technologies from a diverse range of sectors and expertise.
“We are using tools to shorten the timeline,” Pozmantier said. “We are looking at big societal-scale problems that are not being solved by industry and bringing together the understanding of various teams.”
Wessner noted the new directorate does not take away from basic research, but rather adds resources to the NSF, including more money. “Will this work and will the results be satisfactory? I think we will have new and better results. But what those will be exactly will take time,” he said.