Changes in the R&D environment are driving research managers to look at different ways to support and grow their organizations.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Ray Lugo, dDirector of NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
How important are collaborations or partnerships with other organizations to the research and development process?
At Glenn, I believe our collaboration models may be a little bit different, in that we do both applied and some fundamental or basic research. What we really want to do is understand our customers’ problems. The collaboration is really about trying to understand what problem you’re trying to solve, and how that technology that you’re working on might be the solution to that problem. That is the kind of collaboration we do. We also do collaboration, like others have said, where we can’t have the full breadth of capabilities at one lab to solve a big technical problem.
You have to work with other groups; it’s generally not one technology that’s going to solve the problem, it’s going to be multiple technologies. How those technologies integrate is really a key element of collaboration. We work with other federal laboratories, private companies, universities, and other government agencies to find solutions for our customers.
What key technologies introduced in the last 10 years have helped improve the R&D process?
One of them is innovation tools. I think innovation is somewhat of an overused term in some respects. But, we have been using Six Hats training at NASA Glenn. This is about trying to get as many ideas on the table before you start winnowing down the potential solution set to really increase the trade space on ideas. To be honest with you, we are seeing some interesting ideas come out of that. I don’t know if that is a technology as much as it is a process, but it’s really helping.
Another one, and I have to agree with you about the computer technology in general, is that you can do a lot of research without even actually having a whole lot of equipment on the computer, if you are computer savvy enough. I think computing power, the fact that a lot of times, a young person can have more computing power on their desktop today than we had 20 years ago. And computers are kind of changing the ability to move technology forward in a different way. Computer technology, I think has helped. One thing I would share with you from my standpoint that is really helping, is that we are getting away from this idea that you can only really develop technologies in multimillion dollar programs.
We have really gone to a fairly restrictive model, kind of a seedling fund model, where we give a researcher a certain amount of labor hours so they have laboratory time. They have a little bit of money to buy equipment, tools, or materials. We then force them to at least show that their idea or their hypothesis works before we make the big investments. I think that what could potentially change technology, evolution, and innovation in general is the fact that we can do a lot with just a little bit of money and time.
What’s on your wish list for improving the R&D process at your company? What don’t you have that you would like?
Truckloads of money, does that count? I say that, and I mean the term truckloads. In reality, the money we have available to support the researchers is, in many cases, not enough. It’s a question of, do you have enough post docs, the right tools, or the right equipment? It really goes across the entire spectrum. I see that there are times when we are probably not advanced in new technology or getting the results we want because we don’t have the money to put into those basic things.
That would be one of the things I feel would help improve the R&D process across at least the government and FFRDC’s, and probably university laboratories. My sense is that properly deployed, increased funds would help. I think the other part, is that it would more than likely improve it if we do a lot of research. I don’t think we’re very good at thinning the flock. We spent a lot of money and time on technologies that just aren’t going anywhere.
We have got to get better at figuring out what technologies are going to have the kinds of results that we need, so that we can focus on those and get out of the ones that aren’t going to pan out. This will enable us to take those resources and either put it into new things or into the things that we really need to be working on. I don’t know if that is a process or a technology. Definitely, one of the things I’m trying to figure out, is to get some people who can objectively look at the work we are doing and help us parse through that full portfolio to make sure we are getting the right amount of emphasis on the really important stuff.
We could then, take some of the resources away from the things that aren’t really going to go anywhere.
How global is your organization, with regard to industry partners, clients, and suppliers?
I have to say, we are not global enough. It’s not as if we don’t have researchers who come from across the world that work within our organization, but I don’t think we really have the ability to effectively collaborate enough internationally. There is some very limited amount of collaboration we do. I think Mickey commented about how we can get research staff from countries that are somewhat difficult to incorporate into the workforce. I don’t think we are very global as an organization. Our industry partners deal with predominantly United States-based companies or their subsidiaries.
Similarly, from a client and supplier standpoint, we do have some situations, but they are very limited. The point I am trying to make is that we really are not global.
How do you deal with the rapidly changing face of intellectual property? How do you find help/partners for development without risking your IP?
In my mind, our approach to intellectual property (IP) was flawed because when you talk IP to my researchers, they think patents. Patents are not all there is to IP. Our strategy is really evolving towards a strategy of trying to make sure that we have all the related IP to provide a solution. We had an experience where we had actually signed an agreement with a partner and a venture capitalist. In the process, about six6 months into it, the venture capitalist found out that we did not control all the IP that was required to deliver a solution.
Some of it was held within a university, and that just freaked him out. Our strategy now is not to focus as much on the patents but more about making sure we have the IP we need to go to a potential customer or somebody who is going to commercialize a technology. We need to be able to show them that we have our arms around it and control the IP that’s necessary to execute the agreements we have. It is a change in strategy, not purely a patenting process.
Another big challenge I find, is that the researchers sometimes are our biggest problem. They are so excited about getting their IP out into a commercial product and “the funding stream” that goes along with it. Sometimes we bring people in to have preliminary discussions, a customer lays out what their problem is, and then we solve the problem with them before we’ve signed an agreement. We basically handed them our IP on a silver platter. There’s an incredible education process that has to occur.
We need to protect our researchers and our IP better by managing these interactions. We need to start thinking about IP as bigger than patents, and we need to use the term nondisclosure agreement. When we meet with anybody now, the first thing we do is sign a nondisclosure agreement. This is whether it is a government partner or a university or commercial guy, because what you really want is that legal document that says they can’t walk out of the meeting with your IP. It’s not that people have ill intent, but that as government employees, we are not that savvy.
Commercial people that have money and want to make investments and take technology into a commercial product are very sophisticated. I don’t care if they have the thickest southern accent that you’ve ever heard. They are very sophisticated, and they know what they are doing. Unfortunately, our researchers, who may be very bright and may be the smartest person in their field, when throw in with these kind of barracudas, are going to lose.
How do governmental rules and regulations affect your approach to R&D? What restrictions play the biggest role in your field of research, and how have you met the challenge of meeting them?
I think I could go through the exact same list of rules and regulations as Mickey. So, I’m not going to really spend a whole lot of time on that. I would share with you that on one hand, I think probably the thing that would help is if somebody took a look at all the rules and regulations that really govern research and technology development and tried to replace what exists with something that maybe is more encompassing. What’s happened, is each one of these regulations comes into play to solve a specific problem, and then the next problem gets this unique legislation.
In some cases, they are almost directly contradictory, or they require slightly different implementations. To be honest with you, I think the biggest problem we have is that we’re probably not doing things we could do because you need to an attorney to understand the whole landscape of rules and regulations. I think there are probably people who break the rules unwittingly. I think there are people who are breaking the rules because they understand them well enough that they can subvert the rules and regulations. It’s become almost like the tax code.
It’s become a very complex landscape and compliance is – we’re doing the best we can. I agree that the cost not only within my area of control, which is my researchers and my technologists, but like they said, it’s the collaborating organizations. Sometimes, the implementations are slightly different, even though you’re responding to the same law or regulation. I think what I would share with you, is that I try to make sure that when we have a problem that we get legal counsel to provide general guidance early on in the process so that we’re not sub optimizing the solution set because we don’t understand.
I think the role of attorneys has become almost as significant in research and technology development as the role of the researcher. My daughter is an attorney, but nevertheless, I still find this a sad commentary. She loves having the ability to bill hours; it really inhibits innovation. I think what we really are dealing with, is how do we innovate, how do we create new capabilities, and how do we create new technologies given that there is very uncertain landscape that we’re operating in. You can actually go to jail if you violate some of these rules. I hope I answered the question.
I may have vented, but I think that kind of statures it.
How is your organization involved with carbon sequestration?
Yes, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on this. From the standpoint of NASA, could we contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxideCO2 emissions? Absolutely we can! In fact, we are working on that for aircraft engines. That is something we do. I think the problem with NASA contributing more, is the fact that it isn’t our mission. So, while there are applications for some of the research we’re doing to directly apply to carbon sequestration, that’s really not our core mission. For me to venture out too far down that path is not aligned with what we have been asked to do as an Agency.
In reality, I suspect that all of the people in this room, from a federal perspective, probably have technologies they’re working on that in a dual- use type application could contribute to carbon sequestration. But, I’m not sure that they’re actually pursuing those options. The fact that in a very budget constrained environment, the first priority has to be deliberate your core mission, and your secondary priority is these other things. I don’t know if I’ve helped you or not.
Describe the funding environment at your organization. Has funding increased, decreased? What are the prospects for the next year?
Well, flat is the new up, down is the new flat. At NASA, in general, we have been fortunate, and we have a flat budget. But, I was commenting earlier, that within that flat budget, we still have increases in personnel costs. We still have inflation. So what’s really occurring is about a 5 to 6 percent per year erosion in our buying power which is significant. I don’t know that within the foreseeable future, and I would say on the budget government funding horizon, that we’re going to really see a change in that whole construct. I would say while we’re flat, we have this cost growth within that flat budget that really erodes at the root of our ability to do the things we need to do.
That’s really why we are focused on commercializing technology. We want to see if we can do something to increase our external funding stream which would allow us to increase the number of people working on some of these technical problems. This benefits not only the taxpayer from a program standpoint, but it benefits the taxpayer from an economic growth and job creation standpoint. I think the funding environment is what it is. We can spend a lot of time fretting over it. It’s not productive. We are planning on a flat, maybe slightly declining budget. The whole thing about sequestration is that if it happens, it will be significant. I think it’s going to have a very significant effect on the economy, not just government agencies. I think it’s going to create havoc. I am hoping that our elected officials do what they’re supposed to do, which is govern. Governing by definition is compromise. I think we have got to find a compromise, because the alternative is not acceptable. This is how I see it.
What recent scientific breakthrough made you say ‘Wow’? And why did it?
Lugo: I wanted to say, that in our case, it’s the scientific discoveries through our space program. I say wow for two reasons. One is wow, NASA actually pays us to publicize this and with public outreach because most of our work is proprietary, confidential, or classified. It is refreshing to have some research work that you can actually disclose to the public. That’s pretty wow. The other part of it is that those discoveries then result in actually rewriting the textbooks for physics. That is a pretty wow sort of thing.
It always strikes me that the methods that they use; experimentation and what not, on the space science programs for making these discoveries, is that they are so clever and elegant. That always impresses me and makes me say “wow!”