Charles V. Shank, Director
A VIEW OF RESEARCH IN THE FUTURE AND THE ROLE OF THE FEDERAL LABORATORIES
I bring the perspectives of a national laboratory director and a university faculty member, as well as twenty years of experience in industry. Before addressing the role of Federal laboratories in the research equation of the future, I want to comment on support for science and research in our country.
I think it is difficult for most of us to admit that much of the support for science has been the result of the public perception that a nation which is strong scientifically will also be strong in national security. This justification for supporting science greatly eroded with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a world of shrinking budgets, science is continually being traded off against other public goods. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are not competing with one another, but rather with other public goods. One sees the support for NSF traded off against veterans' benefits, for example. It is time for us to rejustify ourselves.
Today I will address how we create a new environment and stimulate a new discussion about one of the true benefits of science. I will discuss the complementary roles which are played by universities, national laboratories, and industry. I envision a new way of working in partnerships which would allow the partners to create societal benefits which are easily understandable and describable. Each of these research competitors has a unique role; in the portfolio of science, there is a broad range of activities taking place.
What is the universities’ role? Universities are centrally important for science. They educate the next generation. They are dedicated to scholarship, and they therefore bring what I call a "discipline" focus. With a "discipline" focus, universities are at their best when they support a single faculty investigator working with students on a research project.
The role of industry is different. It has changed dramatically since I began my career in 1969, and it is continuing to evolve. Many of my students and colleagues cannot imagine what the research environment was like at Bell Laboratories in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Laboratories like Bell Laboratories, IBM, General Electric, and others had a broad portfolio of scientific activity, which included very fundamental research through development and creation of new products. That research looks very different today.
If you measure the accomplishments of these industrial laboratories back then, you find numerous Nobel Prizes. However, more recently, at the University of California and elsewhere, the faculties include many leading researchers who spent their formative careers in industrial laboratories and left. In those same research laboratories today, there is a widespread belief that if the company invests in scientific research which has a long time horizon, say three to five years or longer, the company will not derive the return on the investment.
Of course, it can be a different equation for a country to derive value from investing in research. It is not that there is no value; it is just that the investor does not get the return directly. This is why industry is moving away from its corporate central laboratories, and taking what I call a "business" focus. That is, research and the time horizons that are focused on predictable business needs. This means that things which in the past might have been done in industry will not be done today unless there is a clear return. For industry, the interest in performing research with a long time horizon is largely disappearing, with a consequent loss of fundamental research.
Let me turn to the role of the Federal labs, and more specifically, the Department of Energy’s national laboratories. First, what are "the Federal labs"? Some have said there are 700 such laboratories around the country. In fact, only about five or ten percent of the 700 laboratories are of significant size, and they are really more different than they are alike. Federal laboratories include agricultural experiment stations, which employ just a few people, to the Sandia National Laboratories, with a budget of more than two billion dollars. In some of the laboratories, the employees are civil servants, while elsewhere, such as Berkeley Lab or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech, the institution operates under a "GOCO," or government-owned and contractor-operated contract. Everybody at my laboratory is a University of California employee.
All these institutions have one thing in common--they are mission driven. They receive Federal funding to perform research related to their respective missions. I will now focus on the sub-set of Federal laboratories which I know best, the twenty or so Department of Energy national laboratories. In the main, these laboratories bring to the research equation a "problem" focus: They seek to solve problems which are national in scope. Our work is designed to solve this set of problems.
A solution to a problem can have many different aspects. At national laboratories, this fact has led to researchers working together in interdisciplinary teams. Team science is a natural consequence of working in a national laboratory. Over the years, the laboratories have taken on large, complex problems, beginning, of course, with the Manhattan project. Ernest Lawrence developed a new way of doing science in teams for problems which were too big for a single person. The skills needed to manage large scientific projects reside in these national laboratories, as can be seen by the success of laboratories in creating and operating scientific user facilities. All of these pieces of the research enterprise fill a need and are part of a balanced research portfolio.
The balanced portfolio that we have today is the envy of the world, a preeminent position we all hope will continue. A word of caution: in times of tight funding, there is a tendency for scientists to focus inward. We are very skillful at getting budgets cut, in a misguided attempt to save ourselves. The quintessential example is the extensive efforts of many of my colleagues in condensed matter physics who helped kill the Super- conducting Super Collider (SSC). The demise of the SSC did reduce the funding for math and physics, but there is no evidence that it helped any other field.
My point is that generally, the scientific enterprise does not come together to support science. Unless we can change the dynamic, this will prevent us from having a scientific budget that is understandable and supportable by people less informed about science and research than we are.
As we go forward, it is important to consider the benefits of partnering. I want to describe some exemplary partnerships and talk about how the partnering model can bring mutual benefit. To start with, I would like to discuss a partnership that has not received a lot of attention, collaborations between universities and national laboratories. In the last few years, university collaborations with industry have been in the spotlight, while little has been said about universities’ linkages with national laboratories. In fact, there is quite an impressive record in this area.
The National Science Foundation has made a large investment in research at scientific user facilities, indicating their importance to academic researchers. At Berkeley Lab, more than half the users of the Advanced Light Source are University partners, many of whom are supported by the National Science Foundation. At the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center which is now being established at Berkeley, more than half of the 4,000 users will be from universities, and an even larger fraction from the energy network that couples thousands of faculty from universities around the United States.
Berkeley Lab, which is unique in its proximity to a major university, is a beautiful example of what is possible. Ninety-five percent of our 2,500 participating guests are from universities. We have about 700 students, graduate students, and "post docs" working in the laboratory on 240 joint faculty activities. Several of the Department of Energy laboratories also interact with universities in a variety of ways.
In my view, there are cultural similarities in universities and national laboratories which facilitate collaboration, particularly in some fields. For example, in nuclear physics there is a very close interaction as the community evaluates support for a large national collider. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy are coordinating their activities. In high energy physics, the discovery of the top quark resulted from an investment in researchers by both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The particle astrophysics activity at Berkeley is an NSF-DOE partnership. The National High Magnetic Field Lab, which is a partnership between Florida State University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is also an example in which the NSF investment brought about the Department of Energy support. All of these are joint activities which are independently funded by the NSF and the DOE.
This brings me to my issue for the National Science Board. We might be able to do more, particularly in areas where there is a natural synergy between scientific mission and mission-driven activity. Why not select and co-fund projects which are partnerships between universities and laboratories?
We might start with environmentally responsive technologies. If both the NSF and the DOE saw value in funding scientific projects in this area which made great partnerships between institutions, perhaps we could co-fund projects of this sort. It is a way in which the country could recognize the benefits of funding fundamental science. It is also a way of getting added value out of science funded by the National Science Foundation. That will create a new value for NSF.
This university-national laboratory model is similar to the university-industry model of extracting value from our investment in science through partnership. We at Berkeley Lab and the other national laboratories were pleased with the new NSF call for coupling between institutions in the supercomputing center competition. The primary value of such a partnership is through the enrichment we get in coupling to the intellectual activity of NSF supercomputing centers. While there may be good reasons for this, it is rare for NSF to provide direct funds for activities at a national laboratory, so this encouragement to partnering is particularly welcome.
In fact, there are too many good uses for the NSF dollar, so we have to think of other ways to create mutual support. Perhaps a scientific case could be made for bartering capabilities--in this case, in the supercomputing activity. Coupling between supercomputing activities, say, one at Berkeley and one at another institution, could provide a greater mix of access to computing architecture activities.
My second issue for the National Science Board is how we might establish a mechanism for bartering capabilities between private laboratories and NSF supported facilities. This could be a way to enrich our activities without transferring money, and I urge you to explore the possibilities.
I would like to now turn to the problem of partnerships with industry. Many of the issues concerning university or national laboratory partners with industry are very similar. So I will not distinguish too much between universities and national labs in this regard.
There is a debate swirling around public and private partnerships. Are they "corporate welfare," or are they an investment in the future. Over the past year, much has been said and written about something called "technology transfer." The term is really a misnomer. It gives you the idea that in some Federally funded activity a university or a laboratory has some pot of gold called "technology," which is transferred to a profit-making entity.
What happens is not really a transfer at all. In fact, it is seldom that any technology is developed to the point where it can be a commercial product. We are really talking about a technology partnership. There is a need to make a shift in understanding from a linear model of research to one in which we have concurrent research, in order to recognize that new understanding, new ideas, and the value of research result from partnering.
Partnering is an important way for the Nation to really get full value from its investment in research. However, Congress is moving in a new direction. One side characterizes partnerships between industry and national laboratories as interfering with the marketplace by picking winners and losers. Some see a subsidy for big business. Others see something which should be a concern. Is it a disincentive for the private sector to do research if the government supports it? The other side sees this as a venue for assuring that American industry captures the value from the Federal investment in research, creating new industries and jobs. So what is the right answer?
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is probably some truth to both these views. There is no agreement about this issue in the country, but action is taking place anyway. Congress has not prohibited corporate research agreements, after all. In a sense, it is really coming back to the issue that if a company does not invest and cannot get a return, can a country invest and get a return? If the country invests in research, should we somehow figure out how to make sure we get that return? Accomplishing this goal is really a complex problem. I think a major part of it is that we, as a Nation, have not created an agreed-upon set of principles which might anchor such partnerships.
Public-private partnerships in the United States are much less stable than elsewhere in the world. In European countries and Japan, such agreements are encouraged. We should strive to find the basis upon which the majority could agree that this is something worth doing. The first principle that I would suggest is, government funds for research should not go directly to industry. An example I have comes from an old friend leading a large company, who told me that he had just received government funding as a direct grant. He would have done 70 percent of the work anyway, but he said, " Why wouldn’t I take the money? It is going to help our company's bottom line." We must look carefully at how we do that kind of thing and assure there is some exceptional justification for it.
Any private and public partnerships should have a clear benefit for both the government participant and the industry. Talking about the basis for a partnership in gives rise to another principle: unique knowledge within the institution--national laboratory, for example--is an appropriate basis for a partnership.
Here’s a good example. Sandia has just developed a partnership with a company called PPG, a large maker of parachutes, for a new air bag which can actually fit in a shirt pocket. This invention is going to revolutionize the air bag industry. It drew upon Sandia's unique knowledge in designing parachutes for nuclear weapons, and PPG's expertise in making parachute fabrics. This partnership will be beneficial to the country by enabling us to derive a value from the government’s investment in making advanced parachutes. It will also raise the level of that capability at Sandia Laboratories.
Another principle is that unique facilities at federally funded institutions can provide the basis for the collaboration. At Berkeley Lab semiconductor companies have come to us to develop a new understanding of how to make and characterize these new superclean wafers needed for future generations of high-density electronic components. We have unique capabilities at the Advanced Light Source in very high brightness x-rays which will help make this development possible.
Another worthy principle on which to base creating a partnership which the Federal government should fund is one in which the output of the partnership creates a public good. Creating a public good is an excellent basis for a partnership. I will give you one quick example. At Berkeley, we have developed a new low-emissivity window. It has greatly reduced the energy losses in buildings coming from windows by putting a coating on the windows. This product now has 35 percent of the country's market in windows. It is a savings in excess of $300 million a year in avoided oil costs. The value of this partnership to the country is not only in the fact that it created new jobs and businesses, but also, the overwhelming value is that we have reduced our dependence on imported oil.
I believe that the principles for partnership which I have been discussion are logical, consistent, and explainable to people as to why we would want to bring public and private entities together. Perhaps this approach could form the basis for a more rational argument, and pay dividends to the support of science in our country.
Let me close these remarks by reiterating that all the elements, universities, industries, and laboratories, are essential ingredients in the nation's research portfolio. A renewed emphasis on partnering will assure that the nation reaps the benefits from investments in science and technology research.