National Science Foundation launches brand new directorate with ambitious goals

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan and assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Erwin Gianchandani joined the Federal Drive with Tom Te...

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The National Science Foundation has established a new directorate, the first new one in 30 years. It’s called the Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate. For what it’s all about, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan and Assistant Director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Erwin Gianchandani joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: All right. Tell us about TIP – Technology, Innovation and Partnerships – isn’t that what the NSF has always done?

Sethuraman Panchanathan: Tom, you’re absolutely correct. NSF over the last more than seven decades has made unbelievable discoveries possible and those discoveries have translated into eventual technologies that have improved the quality of life as well as promoted the objectives having a robust economy. Now, if you look at the DNA of NSF, the last time we spoke Tom, I talked about this DNA of NSF being curiosity-driven, discovery-based explorations, synergistic and symbiotic with use-inspired, solutions-focused translations and innovations. And I said to you at that time, that explorations make possible innovations, and innovations in turn make possible more explorations. This rich symbiosis is something that NSF has always fostered and done a great job. But there are many, many outcomes to speak for. In the interest of time, I won’t go into that. But I also said to you that this is a moment for strengthening at speed and scale. And so this is about strengthening the outcome-based activities much more intentionally. How can we spread the geography of innovation to innovation ecosystems everywhere? How do we establish strong transmission pathways? And how do we do this with partnerships across all aspects, and everywhere across the nation?

Tom Temin: So Dr. Gianchandani, do you see then more people, grantees, types of organizations being brought into the NSF orbit? And it sounds like you’re almost talking about this or thinking about this as an accelerator type of program?

Erwin Gianchandani: Absolutely. We’re looking to try to get folks who are certainly have long been a part of the NSF research community, our academic researchers and institutions of higher education, community colleges all across the country, but we’re looking to go broader as well, right? I think we’re really deeply interested in, as the director described it, that outcomes-focused research. So what are the types of challenges the societal challenges, for instance, the economic challenges that motivate research questions in key technology areas? Whether it’s artificial intelligence, or wireless, or advanced manufacturing, or materials and so forth? And so can we bring some of those users some of the beneficiaries of the research that we could be supporting to bear and into our orbit as you described it? So I’m talking about industry, I’m talking about state and local and tribal governments. I’m talking about civil society, I’m talking about communities of practice, can we bring those stakeholders together with academic researchers, together with nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, to help motivate the research to help shape and orchestrate the research that we’re trying to support? And then to pilot prototype, test out those research results in those very same communities and those very same ecosystems? And learn from that, right? There goes, again, that iterative process that the director described.

Tom Temin: Are there any particular areas that you think need immediate attention, like the climate is a high priority for the Biden administration? I guess my secondary question is, in involving so many more people in organizations, how do you ensure rigorous scientific integrity and thoroughness that is the hallmark of NSF grantees?

Sethuraman Panchanathan: Yes. Tom, I think we’ll have both societally motivating, grand challenge-like problems, like climate is a good example. Now we are emerging out of this pandemic. And that has shown us that there’s a lot of need for how do we get fundamental science and the outcomes both happening at the same time, and that promotes rich outcomes that we are seeing today playing out real time. So as well as that, we are also looking to technologies, emerging technologies like quantum, or technologies like AI, Advanced Wireless, advanced manufacturing, advanced semiconductors, right? Synthetic biology, biotechnology, so you can think of all these as tremendous opportunities for us to build ecosystems of prosperity everywhere. Tom, last time, we talked I said that talent and ideas are democratizing everywhere across our nation. How do we therefore build innovation ecosystems everywhere across the nation? It might be in a place the best possible smart agriculture environment that we can build. Right? And that then spurs on entrepreneurship, new industries, as well as new talent being generated, both at the same time.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, the director of the National Science Foundation, and with Dr. Erwin Gianchandani, the center director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. And if you look at the research areas just on the main NSF site, which I’m doing now there are a lot of them: biological, education, human resources, computer and on and on and on. Is TIP going to ingest some of these and own it? Otherwise, how are you going to kind of get along organizationally with people that already have deep research programs in a lot of these areas that you’ll also be working in?

Sethuraman Panchanathan: I would just say one word, and – Erwin, [you can] expand on this. When we envision TIP, we envision it as a cross cutting directorate. You rightly point out all the existing directorates. The cross cutting nature of the directorate is how do you leverage what is happening in those directorates, and then rapidly scale and speed up the translation pathways. At the same time, it is also going to see how we can influence and energize more activities happening in the directorates. So we can get future technologies and industries of the future, as I would say, all made possible. Erwin?

Erwin Gianchandani: Yeah. So Tom, just to build on the director’s comment, success of TIP is dependent upon partnership with all of the existing directors. The director characterized it as a horizontal. You can characterize it as horizontal, you can characterize it as building the relationships with our colleagues in the biological sciences, in the computer sciences, and so forth. To really put a spotlight on the use-inspired, solution-oriented aspects of the research to double down on that, and then, as the director said, to accelerate the translation of research results to practice. If I can, I’ll come back to something you asked a moment ago, Tom, about partnerships. And this means bringing in folks from a variety of different communities, how do you ensure the rigor of the science that you’re supporting? So let’s talk about that for a quick second here. First, I’ll give you an example of the kind of collaboration that we hope to engender through this directorate. We just announced a partnership, a $100 million partnership with the Intel Corporation, specifically where Intel’s providing $50 million and we’re providing $50 million to support research and education activities on the next generation of semiconductor designs and manufacturing. That is what’s necessary to help us sort of maintain and grow U.S. competitiveness for years to come. And that’s the kind of partnership that we hope to get out of this. And absolutely along the way, we’ll have our rigorous merit review process, we’ll have expertise drawn in to ensure that we are funding the best ideas, the brightest ideas with that type of rigor.

Tom Temin: That particular one interests me, the semiconductor, because all of the leading edge work is done for gaming at this point. That’s where you get to the sub nano and the nano types of etching, and so forth. Whereas say, U.S. military chips use the old big fat pathways, relatively speaking, it’s all microscopic. But it sounds like a program like that could, in some way, help the chip shortage in the long term, and also bring back an area of manufacturing developed in the United States in the first place where the first transistor was made, and maybe get us back where we, I feel we should have still been after all these years.

Sethuraman Panchanathan: That’s a very, very good point, Tom. And when you talk about the very first transistors made, and I often talk about the Bell Lab kind of framework, right? And that’s what we’re trying to do all across the nation, Bell Labs-kind of frameworks to public-private partnerships. Clearly to your point about semiconductors, absolutely. If you look at every ingredient that will make a successful into the future is, of course the workforce talent that is needed, the new ideas, emerging, similar ideas, as well as making sure supply chain and other issues that you’re talking about right now, are leveraging the strength of research in order to be able to build all these manufacturing advanced manufacturing centers for the future. And that we are reclaiming that global competitiveness that we always have had, and seeing how we can supercharge that.

Tom Temin: And if you look at research organizations across the government, and certainly at least in two or three of the armed forces – because I’ve had interviews on this – but also in civilian areas, DHS, there are many programs, trying to make sure that historically unused parts of the brainpower of the nation, the historically Black colleges, the underutilized, there’s a whole lot of brainpower out there that for whatever reason, has maybe not had access to this kind of funding and support. And so how will you coordinate with all of those programs that are ongoing, to make sure that you’re not all stumbling over each other for the same lab somewhere in a college?

Sethuraman Panchanathan: A good point, again, I think we are doing a lot as Erwin will expand again on this. There’s a conscious effort here, Tom, to make sure that we are listening, configuring and serving all those places that currently have not had their full share of participation. And so when we talk about innovation everywhere, it is about in participation, in collaboration with the places where more talent and ideas needs to be pulled and made possible.

Erwin Gianchandani: And just to build on that Tom, I’ll say we’ve actually already done a series of listening sessions, to the director’s comment about listening. Listening sessions with HBCUs, another with [Hispanic-serving institutions], another with tribal colleges and universities, and yet another with community colleges. All of these together, one way that I describe it, this is sort of a vast and really untapped treasure trove of talent that exists across the country. And so we have an opportunity, we have a responsibility, not just an opportunity, we have a responsibility to design programs that allow us to meet people where they are in terms of their readiness and their ability to engage, and help to grow capacity at these types of organizations to really engage with our colleagues and friends at those organizations. And, Tom, you well know that NSF has a rich history of partnering with other agencies, we’ve partnered with Department of Agriculture, for example, with DHS, with various parts of the DoD as well. That’s why Partnerships is in the name of this directorate, in part, right, because we want to be able to ensure that we are dovetailing with the efforts that they have, and really creating the symbiotic relationships and efforts that will help us boost up capacity building at these different organizations.

Tom Temin: And I had a question about another cross cutting kind of direction. And that is the Establishing Translation Pathways as one of the lines of effort, because there’s this whole gigantic ecosystem of the federal lab consortium. And then as your website mentions, there’s other ways that get technology out into the marketplace, America’s Seed Fund, the NSF Innovation Corps and so forth that’s already there. So equally true that you’ll try to work in with those groups that might be pursuing similar technologies through different channels. But the idea is to commercialize it all at some point.

Sethuraman Panchanathan: Absolutely. I mean, that’s why we talk about partnerships. Partnerships also begins with other agencies that also have programming programs, like the SBIR STTR [Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer]. As you know, SBIR STTR was birthed at NSF. Now, I’m so thrilled that it is everywhere, in the ’70s it was birthed. Likewise, I-Corps [Innovation Corps (I] was birthed at NSF, and now it’s proliferating into other parts of the nation, so to other agencies, too. So I think I’m very, very thrilled about that. And so those are going to be scaled, Tom, no question about that. And also in partnership, they’re going to be even more, but then we’re also looking at new frameworks, like what to call them digital innovation engines. How might we build to public-private partnerships, as stronger translational pathway for ideas from academia, industry, and community and more all coming together fusing, and seeing how we might then through that develop new solutions, new technologies, as well as new talent. All of them being done at the same time.

Tom Temin: And just a question about TIP itself: Is there a place with a door that says TIP on it, within the NSF? I mean, you said you’re kind of virtual in many ways and drawing on existing structures. But is there a way to signal physically that TIP is at the top?

Erwin Gianchandani: So I wouldn’t say TIP is at the top, Tom. But I would say that TIP is certainly a key element now of what the National Science Foundation is trying to do. And let me just say that besides our web presence, which is the way folks can find us all across the country, we do have a physical space within the building itself, right. So I’m there a couple days a week, for example, and there’s a physical space with a door and names and so forth. And part of this is, as the director said, and you alluded to this, SBIR STTR, we have certain programs that NSF has long supported that are now part of the TIP umbrella. So that team is now a part of the TIP umbrella as a starting point, as we take this initial step and look to grow from this initial step.

Sethuraman Panchanathan: This is not about TIP being at the top, but TIP making everything to the top, bringing everything up to the top.

Tom Temin: Or you could put a TIP in the format of putting all your wood behind the same arrow head, I think as one famous tech exec used to say. And just a final topical question: $10.5 billion proposed for NSF, this all just coming out in the president’s 2023 proposal. Is that good for NSF? Is it up and are you pleased with the resources you’ll have?

Sethuraman Panchanathan: We are thrilled by this, Tom. We are very thrilled by the president’s commitment to looking at NSF as a mechanism of advancing into the future. So we’re very excited by the budget and the components of the budget that will allow both science and technology and engineering all of them advancing at the same time with experience scale. So we’re very, very thrilled. We’re very grateful to Congress, both the House and the Senate on both sides, truly supportive of NSF. We are very grateful to the administration and the Hill. We cannot say that enough. So we are looking forward to the future.

Tom Temin: All right, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan is the director and Dr. Erwin Gianchandani is the assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships at the National Science Foundation. Thank you both for joining me.

Erwin Gianchandani: Thanks for having us.

Sethuraman Panchanathan: Thank you very much, Tom, it was great to be with you.

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