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Public-private partnerships driving science, research efforts

Public-private partnerships are ubiquitous throughout the federal government; agencies rely on contractors for capabilities they don’t themselves have the abi...

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Whenever you hear a federal executive discussing the accomplishments of their agency or their office, you’ll almost always hear the same three words: “we partnered with.” Public-private partnerships are ubiquitous throughout the federal government; agencies rely on contractors for capabilities they don’t themselves have the ability to deliver, many of them revolving around technology.

These partnerships were on display during the October 2020 Microsoft Federal Science and Research Summit, where directors of scientific programs across the federal government discussed the ways in which they’ve partnered with the private sector to leverage emerging technologies to deliver bleeding edge capabilities.

During the summit, Cheryl Ingstad, director of the AI and Technology Office at the Energy Department, said one such program, called First Five, would provide artificial intelligence to first responders to help them make better decisions faster during the first five minutes of responding to an emergency, which are the most critical. 

Artificial intelligence is one of the most common technologies federal agencies look to industry to provide, because the federal government is up to its elbows in data, but largely lacks the capabilities to analyze it effectively.

“One of the things we’ve heard is that scientists really want to work in the area of their specialty, but they don’t want to become AI experts to utilize these tools or to manage the data,” said Ingstad. “So how do we get data managers and AI experts to the operational and research levels to support our scientists that way?”

Reskilling is one possible solution that’s been widely touted as federal agencies apply automation to more mundane tasks, freeing employees to address more complex work. Data, along with cybersecurity, is one of the most frequently mentioned fields to reskill into.

“Maybe we need more data managers at the operational level. Maybe we need more data scientists assigned to certain teams,” Ingstad said. “How do we bring that edge closer to them so that they can access the high performance computing when they need to?”

Many federal agencies, like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, turn to their private industry partners for cloud services that help them get a handle on their data.

“The value of NOAA’s data depends on its quality, integrity and the ability of users to access and use the data with modern, emerging, innovative cloud-based services,” O’Neil said. “We are on our way. We have a cloud strategy, we have a big data strategy. We are working on leveraging technologies — we are faced with an ever growing amount of information, and we’re looking at how to better manage that data and how to better get it to the public. More importantly, we also are looking at greater use of cloud technologies for scientific computing needs and enabling the value of environmental data for socioeconomic context.”

NOAA works with multiple cloud service providers, including Microsoft Azure, to upload 5.5 petabytes of data, which can be accessed by anyone through Azure Open Datasets. O’Neil said he’s seen businesses arise around the use of that data and accelerate innovation in the way it’s been used. 

“Think of the value that you can do for society with data,” O’Neil said. “Protection of life and property is one of the pillars of NOAA’s mission.”

And John Turner, Computational Engineering Program director at Oakridge National Laboratory, said the Energy Department has turned to Microsoft Azure because it can’t keep up with the high performance computing demand for the supercomputers at Oakridge and other national labs. 

“Currently, the allocation requests are exceeding the available resources by a factor of three or four. And that’s not just at Oakridge, that’s across the DoE,” he said.

Oakridge has used that high performance cloud computing to look at a multitude of complex problems, from aerospace material manufacturing for Rolls Royce to mapping the wake of wind turbines to improved battery technology. 

The Energy Department is also turning these emerging technologies to solving some of the biggest environmental challenges of the time. For example, Ingstad said DoE is applying artificial intelligence to help figure out an effective way to deal with carbon dioxide emissions.

“How could we turn it into a different chemical structure that we could use in a renewable way? How could we break it down into something less harmful? How could we also store it?” Ingstad said. “I see AI as an accelerator. It’ll make it faster. We could go at this in a traditional way, but it would take a long time. AI will accelerate it.”

As the amount of data gathered by the federal government continues to increase, these kinds of public-private partnerships will only become more common, and more valuable to both public and private sectors.

“We see a lot of young companies growing up around these data products, cloud-native companies,” O’Neil said. “I think there’s an enormous amount of potential.”

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