A call for disruptive change in how the government assesses technology

A group called the National Network for Critical Technology Assessment is the latest to call for restoration of U.S. scientific and technology preeminence. The group, working under a National Science Foundation grant, said, “Something disruptive is needed in how we fund the pathway from translational discovery to commercialization.” For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin is joined by Network member and Carnegie Mellon engineering and public policy professor Erica Fuchs.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And first of all, tell us about the National Network for Critical Technology Assessment. What is it and who’s in it and what’s its purpose?  

 Erica Fuchs So I have been testifying for a number of years about the need for analytics to inform national technology strategy. And after the unprecedented chips and science legislation, which mandates that the U.S. government both have a national technology strategy, but also that NSF TIPP evaluate what are the emerging challenges facing the U.S. and also how investments in key technologies could address those challenges. We had this incredible opportunity to bring together some of the top minds from across the country to ask, how exactly would you do that? So if you want me to build on that, we were able to bring together leaders in analytics to inform National Technology Strategy from 13 Tier one research universities from across the country.  

 Tom Temin And what is it that they would analyze with their analytics?  

 Erica Fuchs Well, the question was, could we in this year demonstrate that data and analytics could tractably make a difference in informing how the federal government could invest in emerging technologies to enhance its national objectives? And what’s interesting about the federal government is that it is not a firm it doesn’t have one objective to maximize. It’s not just about profit, it’s about national security, it’s about the economy, it’s about social well-being. So how do you have analytics that help you inform how to invest limited dollars across those different objectives?  

 Tom Temin Now, you might say early on in the semiconductor development, I mean, you know, going back to the fifties, there was some Defense Department money that helped lead to development of semiconductors. But then that industry exploded without any help from the government. It was just simply the entrepreneurial ship and great science and so on in the application of technology. So I guess the question is how deeply should the government even be in deciding these things when we have examples of markets deciding very well for themselves and creating U.S. leadership that’s world wide?  

 Erica Fuchs Well, first off, I would argue that it’s not true that the federal government didn’t subsequently continue to make very important funding of semiconductors right up to the very moment, first off. But second, look at the chips and science legislation right now and its focus on semiconductors. We have in our analytics shown, for example, that the U.S. has less access to what are called shuttle runs and multi project wafers than other countries. And those are critical to being able to commercialize emerging devices. So we are at a disadvantage in being able to commercialize the next big thing. And that disadvantage doesn’t require us to pour tons and tons of money into the problem. Actually, what the federal government is now doing is requiring that if firms are benefiting from our subsidies in establishing domestic facilities here, that they must also then give U.S. researchers more access to running their new designs through this facility. So there’s a way that you can save money by acting smarter and ensuring our competitiveness.  

 Tom Temin So the essential recommendation of the report then is, well, you would create something called a CTA, a critical technology assessment entity. Tell us what that is.  

 Erica Fuchs So I think I’m going to keep on my focus of cheap in a certain sense, how do we invest limited resources so that we can lead and ensure all of our national objectives are met in the best way possible with those limited resources? So we have analytic capabilities across our country. We have leaders in academia working on these problems. We have leaders in the FFRDCs (Federally Funded Research and Development Centers) working on these problems. How do we synthesize that knowledge? But not only synthesize that knowledge, Invest. In those analytics in a way that brings together the very best capabilities from our country, across disciplines, across institutions, to inform federal investments. And the answer there is that we need an entity that perhaps similar to the way an ARPA or a DARPA acts, is able to orchestrate those analytic capabilities across economics, across engineering, in integrated multidisciplinary teams, across the FFRDCs that can be more problem oriented to answer specific problems and also get out ahead of them. So take for example, our battery energy storage and Critical Materials group. Rather than us looking back and saying, for example, Oh gosh, we don’t have enough masks or oh gosh, we don’t have enough infant formula, we have a problem or no, oh no, we have a semiconductor shortage. That team was able to say, look, we can see right now that we are heading straight into a shortage that will have economic and worker jobs impacts on the scale of the semiconductor shortage due to shortages in supply and critical materials. But there are actions we could take right now to get ourselves out of those problems. And that’s the type of analytics we need to get out ahead of the problems and to be funding to get out ahead of the problems so that we’re not caught off guard.  

 Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dr. Erica Fuchs. She’s an engineering and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. And briefly, just tell us how this is a 158 page report that the network has come out with. And how did you come up with it and whose hand is it in now and what do you expect to happen with it?  

 Erica Fuchs So the in some ways mandate or task that either an NSF TIP gave to us or we gave to ourselves, I’m not sure who should be blamed for the disaster, but it’s not a disaster was what could we do in one year to demonstrate how analytics could inform national investments and limited resources? So we had a four week search time to say across the country, who could possibly help us answer these questions? And so I was able to bring together different scholars from across the country to the table. And the question in terms of where we go from here is a huge one. Our country doesn’t today have this capability in place. NSF TIP is trying to invest in the future of this capability, even in the intellectual foundations that might be necessary. So how do we go from where we are right now to the next step, which our country needs, which is really an agency with program managers or an entity with program managers that can fund, for example, NAI bringing the top disciplines and institutions together to get out ahead of those problems. A program manager in semiconductors that can get out ahead of those problems. But then you need really an entity that has also a technical director that says, Oh, wait a second, AI’s future is going to be constrained by our inability to advance semiconductor devices, and that’s soon that’s in the next five years. So how do we need those two groups to be working together? You need people out there who are leading in terms of a government director who’s saying, Oh wait, what is the government? What are the policy questions government’s asking? And how do we say, oh, gosh, this isn’t even on government’s radar or government’s implemented something and we need to see if it’s working or if we need to do something different. So defining the right problems to ask is an art. You need program managers who can do that, and you need an office that is able to orchestrate across those program managers just like you do in DARPA. And then the question of how do you after having done this instantiation of saying, look, we can really make a difference, we haven’t solved the door, nor should we? The Science advisors challenge, which is what should the country’s national technology strategy be?  

 Tom Temin Yeah. So the structure you envision really sounds almost like the latest ARPA, which is the energy one and the health one.  

 Erica Fuchs What a fantastic question you ask. I’m actually a scholar who has studied the DARPA mechanisms and how they work. So I think in the orchestration of analytics across the country, it is very ARPA like. But what we have to do differently is ARPAs, while they are really good at orchestrating and implementation of emerging technologies in the analytics case, we are trying to prevent surprise for the country, but we are not going to be taking the same level of risks, right? We don’t have a tolerance, but our goal is to spend our money more wisely. So we need the orchestration of ARPA, but not the and the prevention of surprise, but not the risk taking.  

 Tom Temin Sounds like a new bridge across the valley of death for technology.  

 Erica Fuchs Absolutely.  

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