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Photo of Arden Bement

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

"Collaboration for Innovation"
International Workshop on Scientific Challenges of New Functionality in Glass

Washington, DC
April 16, 2007

Greetings to everyone. I want to thank Dr. Jain and his colleagues for organizing this event. I'm particularly pleased that the National Science Foundation, through our support of the International Materials Institute at Lehigh and Penn State, has played a part in bringing this distinguished group together.

Although glass has an age-old pedigree, it is now enjoying a renaissance at the frontiers of science and technology -- from applications in photovoltaics and fuel cells to tiny glass microspheres that target cancerous tumors. Despite the old saw about "glass houses," new architectural applications could help us live sustainably on the planet.

You will hear much more about frontier developments in glass research during today's discussions. That gives me the opportunity to consider the larger context in which such path-breaking discovery and technological innovation occur. I'll begin by describing the changing research scene, and then go on to comment on the need for creative partnerships among industry, universities, and government.

Two decades ago, Rustrum Roy, a visionary in materials science, and co-author Susan Shapley, wrote the now familiar treatise, Lost at the Frontier.1 They called for "a change in the values of our scientists, particularly young people starting their careers, to stress the interconnections among disciplines, institutions, and across barriers and obstacles now separating basic and applied science, engineering and technology."

When Rusty posed this challenge, very few university or industry researchers were venturing across conventional borders. Materials research was a highly compartmented pursuit, where different materials constituted separate fields -- as if each were a distinct planet spinning in solitary splendor. Now we have a unified field of materials science and engineering with the basic principles interwoven into a single fabric.

You may find it puzzling that I emphasize this integrated vision of materials science at a workshop that clearly focuses on glass. But a moment's reflection should dispel any confusion.

As in all fields of science and engineering, materials science has been transformed by the monumental changes that have altered the landscape of discovery and innovation over the past several decades. These transformations have changed the very way we conduct research and have greatly expanded what we are able to learn about the world.

And as our knowledge becomes deeper and broader, our technologies embody greater complexity, creating the "high" in "high-tech" that is powering economies around the globe. Glass features prominently in much of this technology.

For materials research in general, and glass research in particular, information and communications technology or ICT has served as the accelerator from bench-top science to the global scale, even as ICT has relied on materials -- not least on glass -- to propel its own spectacular growth. Optical fiber is only the most obvious of many applications of glass that have been central to that revolution.

Nanotechnology is another emerging field that is creating new opportunities for spectacular advances in materials science. I don't need to remind you that only a few short years ago, nanotechnology was not the "household word" that it is fast becoming today. Few could have predicted then how thoroughly the potential of nano -- and nanomaterials in particular -- would animate researchers and educators and set governments and industry in hot pursuit of nano gold.

At the same time, the degree of complexity we can tackle with today's tools and concepts, already staggering, is increasing at a quickening pace. To address the complex problems that characterize research today requires more multidisciplinary teamwork, greater collaboration among industry, university and government players, and a global perspective that embraces international participation in research projects.

In the face of increasing competitive pressures, industry has largely abandoned long-term, high-risk research. The vacuum left by this retreat is being filled in large part by creative and productive partnerships between industry and universities.

For many years, we thought about technology transfer as a one way street from the university lab to the factory floor. But more and more there is two-way traffic between new knowledge and technological innovation. Everyone who participates in this high-stakes game needs the capability to scan the horizon for promising directions in research and technology.

As materials scientists and engineers, we often find ourselves in highly complex landscapes where fundamental and applied research blend and blur. Living on this permeable boundary, we are more familiar than most with the give and take among research and application and development. That is a distinct advantage and an opportunity: we can creatively advance the research and simultaneously meet growing pressures to address national and global needs.

Those pressures are all too familiar. A primary reason for the lightning pace of knowledge generation is a more competitive, more connected world. New ideas and information emerge from every region of the globe and are transmitted with the speed of light. In short, we are now confronted with the "globalization" of science and engineering. Not only is there stiff competition for ideas, but also for science and engineering talent, and for leadership in turning knowledge into applications.

The analog in industry is even more familiar -- increasingly fierce competition in the global marketplace has led to the pursuit of innovation at every level of corporate activity, and heightened the drive to reduce dramatically the time from concept to commercialization.

Competition is a fact of life in today's super-heated global economy. But competitive advantage is only part of a more complex story that involves the answer to a fundamental question: How is competition compatible with collaboration?

One framework for answering this question is "collaborative advantage."2 Over a decade ago, Harvard Business School sociologist and management consultant, Rosabeth Moss Kantor, identified collaborative advantage as a key strategy in a highly competitive environment. "In the global economy," she writes, "a well-developed ability to create and sustain fruitful collaborations gives companies a significant competitive leg up." Her study of international corporations yields three fundamental aspects of successful business alliances:

  • Although most alliances provide benefits for the partners, successful ones also provide an "option on the future, opening new doors and unforeseen opportunities."
  • Legitimate collaboration involves creating new value together, in contrast to a tit-for-tat exchange of value that already exists.
  • Successful alliances do not flourish within "command and control" systems; they require a rich environment of interpersonal links that enhance learning.

It may seem paradoxical that collaborating more with competitors is a winning strategy. At the very least, every nation collaborates in order to compete. In our era of high-velocity change, just keeping up with new science, engineering and technical developments requires a staggering level of global communication.

But information is the least to be gained. As Kanter discovered, fruitful collaboration produces benefits that flow to all the parties that cannot be obtained by any of them separately. It strengthens bonds of understanding across disciplines, sectors and cultures. And importantly, it lays the foundation for further collaboration with benefits that cannot yet be imagined.

A recent article in BusinessWeek, titled "Innovation in the Age of Mass Collaboration" puts it this way:

"Winning companies today have open and porous boundaries and compete by reaching outside their walls to harness external knowledge, resources, and capabilities... A new breed of 21st-century enterprise is emerging -- one that opens its doors to the world; co-innovates with everyone, especially customers; shares resources that were previously closely guarded; harnesses the power of mass collaboration; and behaves not as a multi-national, but as something new: a truly global business."3

To be sure, what is "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." What is true for industry is also true for academia and government collaboration, and most importantly, for partnerships that bring all these sectors together.

For the National Science Foundation, this means a continued commitment to foster collaborations of all kinds and to seek new forms of partnership to address today's research challenges and opportunities.

The Foundation's mandate, as part of a broader federal research and development effort, is to foster the nation's science and engineering strength in order to strengthen the nation's economic and social future. In that process, we support the disciplines in their constant effort to reach the farthest frontier while maintaining their fundamental capability.

In a world in which new knowledge emerges with lightening-quick speed, this is no mean feat. It requires constant attention to the frontier and a sharp eye for research that has the potential to transform the world. Transformative research is a term given to research that has an overarching or pervasive applicability, that cross-cuts many fields like laser technology or computers in previous decades. It can be a tipping-point that sets a field in an entirely new direction. The field of medicine was transformed by antibiotics. Even earlier in our history, electricity and aviation represented transformative technologies. Nanotechnology is headed on this path for our generation and those to come.

It is not always easy to recognize the extent or versatility of new research. Part of NSF's mandate from the federal government is to be the national look-out and supporter of research with unique transformative potential.

Transformative research often leads to technological innovations that seem to strike like a bolt of lightening. These technologies can completely disrupt established industries and generate entirely new markets. Just consider the surprising markets that have emerged with the Internet.

Fundamental, transformative research is at the heart of everything NSF does. But NSF also fosters the development of creative forms of collaboration among government, universities and industry to make absolutely certain that the way we do the business of discovery is as innovative as the research we are funding.

Nowhere is this commitment more apparent than in the NSF Centers Program. The intention of the first NSF centers -- established some thirty years ago -- was to stimulate industry and university interaction in industrially relevant research in order to speed technology transfer.

Centers were intended to be a meeting place where university science and engineering and industry could be long-term and powerful partners to achieve innovation and marketplace success.

One of the early centers was the NSF Industry University Center for Glass Research, established in 1986 at Alfred University. Penn State and the University of Missouri-Rolla are now partners in this center, as are corporations numbering in the dozens.

The Center for Glass Research has now "graduated," a term NSF uses to describe centers that have leveraged their seed funding from NSF many times over and are now self-sustaining.

From the outset, centers focus on multidisciplinary research by assembling a team in a single location. Thanks to our new information and communications technologies, centers today can draw on partners from anywhere in the nation, and from around the globe.

From this early beginning, a diverse and dynamic NSF Centers Program has evolved over the past thirty years -- expanding to address new challenges, including emerging research priorities and changing national needs. The centers have been important agents in this evolution, through innovations in the organization of research and education, creative collaborative structures, and advances in research.

NSF has successfully replicated integration and collaboration in its many forms into the diverse centers that operate today. These centers have helped the U.S. transition smoothly into today's fast-paced knowledge economy. Consider for a moment this partial list of major NSF centers.

The Engineering Research Centers focus on research in complex engineered systems, emphasize partnerships with industry, and encourage curricular innovations in engineering education at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

The Science and Technology Centers extend this model to broad ranges of promising research, engendering a diverse array of organizational arrangements and an enhanced integration of education and research.

The more recent supercomputing and information technology research centers, the nano-science and engineering centers, and the materials research science and engineering centers introduce the dynamic centers structure to research, engineering and education at the frontiers of these overarching technologies.

All of these Centers have been very successful in pioneering practices to speed research results into practical applications and into the marketplace. In fact, we know a good deal about the features which have contributed to their success over the years. I'll mention just a few of these.

  • In consonance with NSF's mission, the centers conduct fundamental research at the frontiers of discovery. This is high-risk, long-term research requiring a critical mass of resources, larger in scale and scope than any single investigator or small team can address. The productivity of multidisciplinary research is now firmly recognized and is ubiquitous within centers.
  • New centers are funded through a rigorous, multi-stage, competitive process of merit review. A variety of innovative platforms and approaches surface in this way that would probably not be identified if NSF adopted narrow constraints or guidelines. As a result, NSF centers are highly heterogeneous, both in substantive research agendas and in science and technology program strategies.
  • The establishment of new centers is not a top down process. The need for focused research percolates through the science and engineering community, and is further clarified in workshops and other collaborative mechanisms. This is vital for identifying emerging areas of research with great potential for rapid advance. It also leads to consensus on broad priorities and guards against insular thinking.
  • Finally, and perhaps most important of all, is the integration of research and education. The framers of the Centers Program understood the long-term value of centers 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.

I have emphasized the Centers Program to make an important point. NSF centers have become complex, multidimensional enterprises that serve as resources for industry, government, and the educational communities at large. The NSF Centers Program has had an enormous impact on how science and engineering research is done across the board. In particular, Centers have been pioneers in developing innovative collaborations among university, industry, and government.

The Centers Program has demonstrated that there are almost as many ways of collaborating as there are centers. Placing too many constraints on center organization, management, strategy, and function would simply stifle this font of creativity from the outset. These features are evident today in the broad spectrum of NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs).

For example, the Center for Polymer Interfaces and Macromolecular Structure (CIPMA), an NSF-supported MRSEC, has had a full industry partner from its inception. The center brings together researchers from Stanford, UC-Davis and UC–Berkeley with researchers from the IBM Almaden Research Center. Other Centers have looser structures that involve many partners from industry and government laboratories.

Centers have also pioneered special efforts to address critical science and engineering workforce needs. The NSF Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) aims to enhance diversity in materials research and education by stimulating the development of formal, long-term, collaborative research and education partnerships between minority-serving colleges and universities and NSF-supported centers and facilities.

Other centers have developed outreach to industry partners in order to ensure that graduates have skills suited to industry needs.

And centers are increasingly at the forefront of international collaboration. I particularly want to mention the International Materials Institutes (IMIs), not least because we are indebted to the IMI for New Functionality in Glass for today's workshop. The long-term goal of these institutes is the creation of a worldwide network in materials research and the development of a new generation of scientists and engineers with enhanced international leadership capabilities.

A critically important aspect of an IMI that distinguishes it from other research centers is its potential to advance materials research on an international scale and develop an internationally competitive generation of materials researchers. Today's multi-national corporations require scientists and engineers with the unique skills that come with international experience.

Although the NSF Centers Program has been at the forefront in pioneering new forms of collaboration, Centers are by no means the only path to innovative industry-university-government partnerships. The NSF GOALI program is another. GOALI stands for Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry. GOALI serves the need for creative and flexible interactions between universities and industry that include individual or small-group projects, and industry-based fellowships and traineeships for students and post-doctoral fellows.

The Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Programs fill yet another niche. These programs aim to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector by strengthening research conducted by small business concerns, and by providing a path for university-based researchers to join forces with a small company to spin-off commercially promising ideas.

There is a growing need for partnerships of all types. In 2005, NSF and the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) initiated a cooperative effort with the industry's Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI), a consortium of six participating SIA member companies.4

This partnership arrangement is intended to meet one of the grand challenges that confronts the entire semiconductor industry. The goal is to encourage research at universities on topics with the potential for maintaining the historical scaling of both computational power and cost of information processing. Funding provides additional graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at NSF centers to work in collaboration with participating companies.

New incarnations of the original centers are now emerging. A case in point is the virtual center, a consortium tightly integrated among many sites linked by Internet and videoconference capabilities, with a coordinated research agenda. Quite obviously, virtual centers can be global in scale.

This is an extraordinarily important development in advancing research across all fields. And, I would suggest, it's a development that industry should understand and embrace as a fresh opportunity for increased interaction with university researchers.

Partnerships among universities, the private sector and government are one of the stalwarts of the U.S. innovation system, and I believe this is true of successful innovation systems around the globe.

What are the stumbling blocks preventing even greater collaboration? There is an old and infamous Pogo cartoon that reads, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

Our own backyard -- whether corporate, university or government -- is a good place to begin looking for impediments that prevent more effective partnerships. Continual dialogue and cooperation across sectors could provide enormous benefits in improving the discovery and innovation system as a whole.

Make no mistake; this will be hard work. There are still chasms that need bridging, from intellectual property issues to differing organizational cultures and national needs that prevent openness to change.

The momentum, however, appears to be moving in one direction: toward even greater collaboration. Our job at NSF is to engage in a continual process of renewal that allows us to identify fresh partnership models and promote new forms of collaboration. We look to you to generate those models and build new paradigms.

Today's gathering is a start in the right direction. I urge you all to seize this opportunity to explore new ways to bridge differences as you explore together new frontiers in glass research.

1 Shapley, Deborah, and Rustrum Roy; Lost at the Frontier: U.S. Science and Technology Policy Adrift. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1985.
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2 "Collaborative Advantage: The Art of Alliances" by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1994. pp. 96-108.
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3 "Innovation in the Age of Mass Collaboration," BusinessWeek Online.
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4 NRI is administered by the Nanoelectronics Research Corporation (NERC), a subsidiary of the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC). Six SIA member companies are participating in NRI and in the cooperative partnership with NSF: Advanced Mircro Devices, Freescale Semiconductor, IBM, Intel, Micron Technology, and Texas Instruments.
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