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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Partnerships at the Frontier"
Accelerating Innovation Foundation Conference 2005

National Academies of Science
Washington, DC
October 19, 2005

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good afternoon. I'm delighted to be here at the Academy to take part in today's discussion of innovation and its vital role in the nation's future. I want to thank all of you who had a hand in sponsoring and organizing this important event, and particularly Dr. Kent Murphy and the Accelerating Innovation Foundation. Needless to say, the "Mid-Atlantic Innovation Chain" is as vibrant and forward-looking as any in the global economy!

[Slide 1: Title slide]
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Innovation has become the watchword for our nation's future. It is both a rallying cry and a challenge, one that is now touted by every sector of society -- industry, academia, and government. Representative Sherwood Boehlert, Chair of the House Committee on Science, had this to say at a recent hearing:

[Slide 2: Boehlert Quote]
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"The reason for this hearing should be clear; we want to send a message; if we don't invest today in science, technology, and education then our economy simply will not continue to thrive."

The final report of the National Innovation Initiative (NII), titled "Innovate America," presents the nation's options starkly as "innovate or abdicate."

America has always measured its own progress not by comparison with others, but with an eye on the next unmet challenge, the territory unexplored by other nations. That is becoming increasingly difficult with the prospect of nations like China and India building powerful economic momentum through a burgeoning science and engineering workforce and strong research capacity. There is fierce competition for ideas and talent, for comparative advantage and market opportunities worldwide.

[Slide 3: Augustine Quote]
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In recent testimony before Congress, Norman Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, put the challenge this way:

"In addressing the future quality of life in America, one cannot help but notice warnings of what appears to be an impending perfect storm."

Augustine's "perfect storm" is a confluence of changing circumstances that now threaten America's economic and global leadership. Among these, he sites "the pervading importance of education and research in science and technology to America's standard of living, and the disrepair in which we find many of our efforts."

[Slide 4: NSF Mission Statement]
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At the National Science Foundation, we have long heard this clarion call and consider it our most important challenge. Innovation is at the core of what we are about at NSF, and our vision statement reflects that. It is direct and crisp: "enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."

To realize our mission, we see to it that each of our investments builds intellectual capital, integrates research and education, and promotes partnerships. In all of these endeavors, we focus on the frontiers of knowledge and beyond -- the fertile territory where new ideas are born, nurtured and eventually bear fruit in economic and social returns.

For the National Science Foundation, frontier research and education are at the heart of every partnership. Partnerships are the focus of this panel and the subject of my remarks today. Over the years, NSF has been a pioneer in promoting creative partnerships -- and we intend to foster even more innovative partnerships in the future.

To begin, I will focus on another kind of storm, the truly tragic Hurricane Katrina.

[Slide 5: Video Not Available]

You are watching one of the first deployments of small, unmanned aerial vehicles -- or, UAVs -- as part of the search for trapped survivors of Hurricane Katrina. These shots were taken in Pearlington, Mississippi. Houses pushed into the street during the storm prevented responders from entering the city to search for survivors.

You can see a fixed-wing plane and also a small helicopter. These camera-equipped crafts were able to gather information showing that no survivors were trapped and that the floodwaters from the cresting Pearl River did not pose an additional threat.

These UAVs were developed and deployed by a team from the Safety Security Rescue Research Center (SSRRC), an NSF-supported industry-university partnership involving the University of South Florida, the University of Minnesota, several undergraduate colleges, and numerous defense and advanced technology companies. The small UAVs are only a small sample of a larger fleet of various robotic devices being developed.

[Slide 6: NSF Centers]
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The Center is one of more than 40 NSF Industry–University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRCs).

These Centers, pioneered in 1974, were NSF's first experiment in partnerships. NSF set out to develop a program that would build a team model. This model would be a place where university science and engineering and industry could be long-term and powerful partners to achieve innovation and marketplace success. The UAVs you just saw are only one of the latest results produced through nearly 30 years of such collaboration.

The I/UCRC model was designed to diffuse the historic reticence between government and industry, and facilitate effective teams among university researchers and industry. The very mandate of this partnership was to address the need of industry to confront growing international economic competition.

Among the fundamental values that NSF brought to the I/UCRC structure was the responsibility for each party to participate as both a teacher and a learner. This was not to be a one-way street where one party gave and the other received. There would be both opportunity and responsibility to teach as well as learn.

The framework for the I/UCRC program was a frontier-approach to NSF's mission of advancing science and engineering for the public good, while continuing to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.

NSF successfully replicates integration and collaboration in its many diverse centers. These centers help the nation move competitively into today's fast-paced Knowledge Economy through the direct transfer of new technological concepts. Consider for a moment a partial list of categories for major NSF centers --science and technology centers, engineering research centers, supercomputing centers, and science of learning centers.

NSF funds each Center for a limited period of time, usually five years, with a possible renewal for five more years. The expectation is that centers will become self-sustaining and "graduate" from federal support. NSF creates new centers as the need arises to address areas of emerging opportunity.

[Slide 7: Nanofountain Probe]
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Consider nanotechnology, the best candidate for next-generation general-purpose technology. NSF's Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers are among our newest, yet are already producing results.

The miniscule tip on an atomic-force microscope helps researchers both "see" and manipulate the nanoscale environment. Now, engineers at the NSF-supported Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Integrated Nanopatterning and Detection Technologies have substantially improved this vital tool. They have created two novel technologies that enable such tips to write features as small as viruses and to withstand abuse with the resilience of diamond. Eventually, vast arrays of such nanofountain probes could be used for crafting complex semiconductors or intricate protein arrays.

A variety of collaborative partnerships -- among universities, government at all levels, and industry -- are a part of each center's conception, strategy and design. NSF understood the value of having all team members participate from the onset of a project when each could have a voice at the front end in deciding the parameters and responsibilities of the work to be done, and in evaluating the scientific feasibility of new concepts. Partners work as a tightly meshed team, providing a critical mass of significant research capabilities, and adding distinct perspectives from different disciplines, insights and sectors.

These partnerships have done much more than assure two-way transfer of knowledge from the university to various partners. Collaborative research in the centers has demonstrated the extraordinary productivity of research at the interface among disciplines. The centers have also contributed directly to the development of new infrastructure, tools and resources necessary to conduct interdisciplinary research at the frontiers.

Those who pioneered these partnerships understood their long-term value serving as a training-ground for graduate and undergraduate students. And as university researchers and industry personnel worked side-by-side, sharing scientific and technical insights, industry began to see these arrangements as fertile territory for recruiting fresh, well-trained talent for their own ranks. The paramount and ultimate outcome is straightforward: the transfer of the innovative scientific and engineering concepts uncovered are transferred to the private sector as the graduate and undergraduate students involved in the centers enter the workforce.

This combination of research and education is unique to the American system. Today, many centers also involve K-12 teachers and students, underrepresented groups, and the general public in educational outreach activities.

How has this partnership model stood up to the test of time? This is a very important question because much has changed over the past 30 or so years.

[Slide 8: Innovation Resulting from U.S. Federally Funded Research]
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Early this year, the American Electronics Association (AeA) published a report titled "Losing the Competitive Advantage? The Challenge for Science and Technology in the United States." This chart appears in that report. It illustrates how some of today's ubiquitous technologies have been generated by federally funded frontier research.

There was a time, in the 60s and early 70s, when the norm was 20 years for the results of fundamental research to find their way to the marketplace. The AeA report describes how federal funding of solid-state physics, and ceramics and glass engineering in the late 1960s created the knowledge base for widespread development and use of fiber optic cable in the 1990s. It is also well known that much of this seminal work was performed by private industry as well.

As you all know, the timeframe in which these innovations developed has now collapsed in many fields, often to 20 months or less. The pace of scientific discovery and technological change has accelerated dramatically with the advent of more powerful and sophisticated tools, more robust computing and networking, and the relentless pressure of global competition. Creative disruption at the frontier and reduced lead-time between discovery and application are the principal drivers of global competition today.

In many fields, what was once a linear process that led from basic research, to application, to commercialization is now much more multidimensional, complex and parallel. Even the inquiries encountered in developing commercial products and services can generate ideas for frontier research. This give and take blurs the lines between the old categories, and makes innovation a much broader team sport.

What remains vital and constant, however, is a focus on frontier research and education. Transformational research and technological innovation converge on the frontier to produce truly revolutionary progress. Tinkering on the sidelines may be important, but it is not what drives cutting-edge innovation.

Today's acceleration and convergence is also a result of effective partnerships. Barriers between sectors have diminished, due in large part to the tight integration among the partners. This synergy has deepened, as new forms of partnership develop that encompass entrepreneurial start-ups, small businesses, and large enterprises.

[Slide 9: SBIR]
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One of these programs is the Small Business Innovation Research program. They say technology transfer is a contact sport. SBIR is the Super Bowl by that standard.

The seeds for the SBIR program (and its close cousin, the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program) were sown nearly 25 years ago when NSF initiated a small business innovation pilot program. We now invest about $102 million in SBIR and STTR each year. Our portfolio of active projects spans nearly every field -- engineering, biosciences, physical and mathematical sciences, information and communication sciences, and education research.

And NSF is still in the innovation game today. One of the SBIR areas NSF will fund this year is emerging opportunities in information technology. A stipulation for this pilot program is that the estimated time from research to commercialization should be no more than three years. In order to get to market quickly, the teams involved must be balanced, and include business development and product positioning skills in addition to technical, financial and leadership talent.

This is really what sets the SBIR program apart. It focuses on developing the particular talent and capabilities of the small business community to take innovation to the market.

[Slide 10: Porous-Silicon Diode]
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One area of SBIR investment is innovative alternative electricity-generation technologies. A multi-disciplinary team of university researchers has joined BetaBatt, Inc. of Houston, Texas to produce a highly efficient porous-silicon diode that may lead to improved betavoltaics. These devices convert low levels of radiation into electricity. They can have useful lives spanning several decades. The team used standard semiconductor processing technology to fabricate the new diodes. If they prove successful when incorporated into a finished battery, they could help power such hard-to-service, long-life systems as structural sensors on bridges, climate monitoring equipment and satellites.

[Slide 11: Interactive Scanning Electron Microscope (iSEM) Simulator]
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Another example from the Foundation's SBIR portfolio demonstrates an important point: innovation is as critical in education as it is in the development of product development. The RJ Lee Group, a team of researchers and educators, has created a CD-ROM and Web-based software to generate some of the capabilities -- and teaching potential -- of a scanning electron microscope using personal computers in a classroom. The iSEM project is the first step toward a larger aim: to develop next-generation virtual laboratory technology to provide students access to advanced analytical instruments rarely found in high schools, or even in colleges.

Today, an interagency SBIR team plans and coordinates investments, so that the majority of these NSF grants meet the needs of other federal agencies, not just NSF's. This is truly an instance of interagency collaboration that encompasses ten agencies. The Small Business Administration is playing a pivotal role as well.

[Slide 12: Global Connections]
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But it is also true, in the words of the old Bob Dylan song, that "the times, they are a-changin." We now need to look beyond our successful partnerships to new combinations and permutations. That does not mean abandoning our successful model. But it does mean devising new, creative collaborations at the core of the innovation nexus.

The shape of these new collaborations can be discerned in the flexible and variable networks that evolve within the science and engineering community and also in industry and commerce, increasingly on a global scale. Researchers have always maintained highly interconnected networks. High tech companies now scan patents worldwide to identify cutting-edge technologies needed for new product development. These networks form, evolve, dissolve, and frequently reform when the need arises. NSF, through its Office of International Science and Engineering, is forging international collaborations to tap into innovative concepts wherever in the world they may pop up.

I'd like to share one story with you, to illustrate these new networks. I recently participated in an Innovation Summit in Japan, where I was asked to answer an increasingly common question: how can America and Japan, or any nation, as well as their leading corporations, reconcile scientific cooperation with competitiveness?

The answer takes us back to Hurricane Katrina, where we began. When we think about technological breakthroughs, the ones that come readily to mind are those that promise high economic yields in industry and commerce. But if we consider the economic and human impacts of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, we must think not of competing but of cooperating. Research on the interactions among disaster warning, response, and vulnerability reduction are cases where the stakes are too high and the scale too large for any single nation to tackle the problem alone. Climate research is another example where every nation has a stake in the outcome. International collaboration is critical in these areas.

In a sense, all nations cooperate in advancing frontier research in order to compete in the marketplace. We need international collaboration on a global basis to identify exactly where the frontier is at any moment. We need fresh intelligence from the frontier to avoid being blindsided by new discovery and technologies. Increasingly, corporations are forming alliances that help them compete through cooperation as well.

We can expect such network partnerships to increase in the future, and new forms of collaboration, as yet unimagined, to arise. As we consider our options for policies that promote and foster innovation -- whether it is funding for science and engineering research and education, or incentives for increasing venture capital, or reforms in math and science education -- we need to recognize that policies should leave ample room for experimentation and exploration. That is a hallmark of innovation, and a key to our future.



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