Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Report from the Front - NMAB-NAS

I recently attended a two day meeting on June 27-28 held by the NMAB of the NAS on the NNI. They were mostly interested in the technology transfer coming from the current investment in the NNI.

A summary follows along with some observations.

Roco started the presentations on the "state of the NNI." He presented his typical power point presentation (timeline across four generations, schematic on investment, long-term vision, timeline against international investments, individual and state contributions, general program components, and international activities).

Teague followed with comments on scientific accomplishments. He claimed that since the inception of the NNI over 4000 individual and small group projects were funded. Some of the projects he highlighted were gold nanoshells, a new model for molecular transport, nanoscale mass conveyors, atom based rule for silicon, and EHS implication (esp. the nano-C60 studies).

Metzbacher spoke on technology transfer. She reported on SBIR and STTR components used to assist in technology transfer, covered publication and citation records as well as patent trends, and offered an important comment on time-scales to measure tech transfer. She went on to offer comparative data on other countries with a tech transfer process.

In questioning, Roco argued that since the USA does not have an industrial policy per se and we need an international view of tech transfer as well as a better understanding on how the USA holds up. There was a question on exit strategies post NNI but that didn't go anywhere. The first meeting emphasized tech transfer. Indeed, one of the calls for the committee was to evaluate tech transfer as a product of the NNI. However, 1. The NNI is not an independent funding entity; it is an umbrella under which different agencies fund initiatives, 2. Tracking a technology directly back to a specific source of funding and determining how much of a given technology is the direct result of that funding is nearly impossible, and 3. It is too early to use the tech transfer metric to evaluate the NNI. Everyone seems to agree on this, nonetheless the review committee kept harping on it. It is quizzical the Congress that refuses to fund ATP wants to know how the NNI is producing tech transfer that was the foundational purpose of the ATP program. Thinking programs like SBIR can fill the tech transfer funding gap is misguided.

The afternoon meeting was on value.

Marlene Bourne talked about nano as a general purpose technology and concluded it was difficult to track. Hardly ground-shattering!

Derrick Boston of Guth/Christopher LLD discussed some lab to fab challenges and some of the challenges associated with cross-discipline communication from his experience with the California NanoSystems Initiative. Here was an area that has been completely under-examined. He also called for VC funding models as a tech transfer tool to be re-examined. The truth is VC plays a minor role in the lab to fab process.

Bart Romanowicz of NSTI discussed efforts at continuing education courses for professionals. Though this might have been interesting, there was no follow-up.

During questioning, the role of VC was re-situated as minor in the process of tech transfer and there was some discussion on perceptual roadblocks though this area was under-examined. The usual funding gap, absent ATP, was highlighted, though it was odd how readily the SBIR program was discussed as an ATP stopgap. When asked about paradigm shifting technologies, there was a palpable sense that no one has attempted to catalogue these. When dealing with emerging technologies, by definition some extrapolation becomes necessary. They are emerging and no one has found a methodology to make reasonable projections. I had a brief discussion with one of the members of the panel, and we noted that if we closely studied the introduction of plastics we might find a way to produce a projective algorithm. By and large, most of the discussion was about the mundane, which is odd given some of the recent advances in protein engineering. There was some discussion about EHS and public understanding but it was reduced to a series of normative claims. IP and patents were discussed but nothing was added to the usual hand-wringing on overlapping claims and USPTO support, which as I have written elsewhere seems to be a PR blitz by patent attorneys to generate business.

The theme for day one was the unique potential of the NNI. There was a call for home runs from the committee, which seemed to be a call for hypebole, especially when NNCO people in the room hadn't catalogued successes to date.

On the 28th, the committee met again. This time the discussion was to examine the unique impacts of nanotech on the economy.

It began with Matthew Nordan from Lux Capital. His presentation was loaded with specific references and information. He made a cogent argument that nanotech was not like biotech and offered an interesting metaphor. Nano as a general purpose technology is more like the assembly line as a technology. This is fascinating for a bunch of reasons. 1. It gives us a model that we can examine to distill a methodology to examine value that takes us past the tech transfer head count. 2. The same metrics used by industries deciding to move to assembly line processed might be transferable to an evaluation of nano. 3. There is an ocean of data on efficiencies associated with assembly line processes. Lux has a value chain document that might be worth examining.

Andrew Dunn of Cientifica was next. He made two major comments. Nanotechnology is actually nanotechnologies. While this might seem unimpressive, it actually situates the debate whereby a uni-variable metric might be unjustified. Next, he called attention to the privacy issues associated with nanotechnology. Anecdotally, I visited with a group of social scientists doing focus group research recently, and I noticed that Americans seemed less concerned about EHS than about privacy.

Joanne Feeney from Punk Ziegel offered little to the discussion per se. Actually, I found her under-informed or under-prepared.

Floyd Kvamme of PCAST was next. He situated the discussion around the 2% rule on product competitiveness and spent some time discussing the challenges of capital investment.

In questioning and discussion, there was a comment on the ballistic effects of some advances which I found interesting. Kvamme mentioned the 90 nm chip as a potential variable. There was a case made that state funding cannot replace federal funding because states are building infrastructures while federal money is funding research. There were some comments on supply and excess capacity and a mention on Korea's entry into the international nanomarket as a supplier. There was a noteworthy discussion over labor including foreign students choosing to return to their native countries and some difficulties associated with post-911 visa restrictions. How specialized the workforce needs to be was finally discussed when Feeney claimed a lot of the people will need technical training rather than full-blown PhDs. You don't need a PhD to operate an STM.

The next group was to discuss the impact of NNI funding on industrial base development.

Tom Kalil reviewed his recent article in ISSUES (see Lane and Kalil, "The NNI: Present at the Creation, Summer 2005, http://www.issues.org/issues/21.4/html) calling for an Apollo level effort and more EHS funding. He called for funding the GAP which means re-examining the ATP program and getting the government back into the lab to fab game.

Sean Murdock from NbA was next up. He offered a set of principles which included more realistic expectation and a longer-term outlook, helping university tech transfer offices to look beyond the immediate need to generate operating budgets and offer real services.

In discussion, Kalil said it might be prudent to return to the set of grand challenges to determine roles played by nano. He offered an interesting anecdote: had we examined ARPANET after only five years we might have decided it was inefficient! Everyone agreed it was simply too soon. What followed were some clarifications of funding levels of the NNI against programs like the DOD's, etc.

The final group was to discuss the state of technology transition to government goals.

Greg Downing from the NIH/NCI discussed directions and offered another simile of "bench to bedside" to describe NIH's “lab to fab” perspective. There was a brief examination of the NCI's Unconventional Innovations Program (see http://otir.nci.nih.gov/tech/uip.html) .

Barbara Karn from EPA discussed implication, especially bioaccumulation issues, end-of-life implications and some nano-remediation work being done.

David Stepp from DOD said the best thing the NNI did was bring people together (kumbaya!). In general, he added that DOD money might have been more productive spent elsewhere in the defense portfolio. He added there is really no line item for nano research -- all proposals are competitive. He remarked that nanotubes have been overhyped.

Minoo Dastoor from NASA remarked the tech transfer has been modest. An example of tiny first steps was a miniaturized X-ray spectrometer. He remarked NASA is spending a small amount to leverage long-term benefits.

Altaf Carim from DOE referenced the a worshop on energy needs and reviewed the national lab infrastructure investment (see http://www.nano.gov/html/centers/DOEcenters.html).

While Stepp was controversial, the remainder of this panel was less so and either the committee was tired and cranky or else they were under-impressed as well because the questioning became much more pointed.

It's difficult to add more when the committee went into closed sessions and I was excluded. I did notice that the tenor of this meeting was more intense than the one I attended earlier this year. Also, some of the members seemed frustrated at Roco's explanations which were lengthy and sometimes not exactly on point. At points, it almost bordered on rudeness. However, it is difficult to underestimate how important Roco has been to the NNI and how many times he served as the bulwark against misunderstanding and misinformation, (just think of the number of times he had to explain that the NNI was not about nanobots) and he deserves to be treated respectfully, though not deferentially.

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