National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Paul E. King speaks on topics including funding, peer review, entrepreneurship, nanotechnology research, and communicating research missions in a social networking environment.
Paul Livingstone, Moderator: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, just to establish things and get everyone talking.
Paul E. King, PhD, business and outreach manager
I work For the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. Our core focus at NETL is fossil fuel based which includes, of course, coal, oil, natural gas, unconventional fossil resources and, in particular, carbon capture, utilization, and storage technology development and deployment.
NETL is a little bit unique in that it has a project management function, as well as a research function. I work for the research arm in the Office of Research and Development. My position at NETL is as the business and outreach manager.
I manage all of the work for others, all of the international activities, all of the intellectual property management, and various other duties for the NETL’s Office of Research and Development.
Livingstone: One aspect of government-funded research that may not be as well appreciated by, say, researchers at private companies, or even perhaps our readers, is how projects of national security or importance are assigned to national laboratories or research centers.
Identify how your organization fits into this process and if you’ve seen some changes recently or over time.
King: It’s the lab director’s prerogative to set up essential research and development capabilities and to maintain those for reasons of security and national importance.
And so, at least within NETL, we have a fairly well defined mission in energy reliability and energy security. The lab director and the director of research are charged with maintaining those capabilities or identifying what new capabilities we might need to have in order to respond to a request, if you will, from the nation or from the Secretary of Energy.
So, the way NETL fits into this is through its mission in energy security and energy reliability, and how these projects are assigned to us is really based upon the competencies that we maintain.
Livingstone: In recent years, there’s been discussion about the peer review process. And, there have been some questions about its effectiveness and even its integrity. What is your organization’s opinion about the effectiveness of the current approach to peer review, which relies on anonymity and assumptions of honesty? And, explain changes that you’d like to see with this approach.
King: At NETL, our peer review process has been evolving over the last few years. In research and development where I work, the program managers rely upon those peer reviews in order to make decisions for ensuing years. Additionally, these are passed up as metrics to the Office of Fossil Energy (FE) and to DOE.
However, in order to add more teeth to that review process, we’ve been moving from utilizing known university professors or former collaborators as reviewers to engaging organizations like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) or the National Academies to bring reviewers with great credentials who are less tied to the outcome.
In making that transition, we’ve been able to both validate the quality of the work that is going on in the Office of Research and Development (ORD), and ensure that the programs and the Nation are getting what they expect from us.
Livingstone: Research and funding in nanoscale technology has been increasing for both basic research and increasingly in product development. Recent findings are shedding some light on the effect of nanomaterials on biological systems. I’m wondering if this affects any research that is taking place at your organization. And, if you feel that some more regulation may soon follow as a result of some of these findings?
King: I’d like to say that we don’t do any nanomaterials development, but I would venture to guess that any material scientist would say, “Everything they do is nanomaterials development.” Now, having said that, we don’t do any nanomaterials development.
Livingstone: Now, even if Solyndra represents a single event and perhaps a small percentage of this type of government loan guarantee, there is the risk of other publicized commercial failures related to government funded research. What will this type of possibility mean for your organization? How do you plan to respond to such events? And, what are your thoughts about the current situation?
King: If we recognize that energy is one of the major concerns of the day, I don’t think that this is really going to affect the overall energy research portfolio. We are all striving toward energy security and reliability. Certainly, it’s a tragedy, but this isn’t the first time a something like this has happened.
But, you know, in the long run, we have big problems and those big problems need to be solved. The national labs will be engaged in finding those solutions. And when those solutions are provided, it will be up to the policy makers to make the tough decisions based upon those solutions, and on, industry to makesound decisions based upon what’s coming out of the labs.
I’d like to add a little bit of follow up on that in the form of an anecdote. In November of 2010, we ran three tours of our laboratory facilities that stick out in my mind. One was for the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), one was a German organization, and the third was a Korean organization. All three of these organizations came not to assess the research itself, but to assess the state of the research technology that we were using to perform the research.
The reason they were doing that is because they’re building green-field research labs. And CNOOC, in particular, was investing $40 billion in infrastructure. They haven’t even put any equipment into the labs yet. They had three years to invest $40 billion to build buildings to house a city that’s going to be a research city.
I look at that, and I think about it, and I wonder who’s paying attention to this. We’re going to be left behind very, very quickly if we’re not investing appropriately in our research and development capabilities, whether that’s the national labs, private industry, or universities. We need to be cognizant of the fact that the rest of the world is investing heavily and they’re using the state of our technology in our labs as their benchmark.
Livingstone: The economy’s going through a difficult time, making politics also very difficult. What’s your perspective on how government-funded research can really help turn things around or at least get things moving forward a little more quickly now that they appear to be a little stuck? How can this type of research stimulate the economy, perhaps stimulate jobs?
King: I’d echo that as well, you know, one of the things that strikes me is that we’re mission driven, and because we’re mission driven, we’re fairly focused. Our scientists are developing a widget for an application; however, that widget or the process development that drives that widget might have other applications as well. Unfortunately, we don’t typically think outside of that box.
And so, we’re engaging entrepreneurial programs at universities because these students come in thinking outside of our mission-driven box, and thinking of other applications. For example, we won an R&D 100 award last year for a protective coating technology for gas turbines and other extreme environments. A university-based entrepreneurship program came to us and said, “Yeah, but why don’t you apply this to barbecues because that’s a huge market right now.” We would never have thought of that and so they’re actually doing their entrepreneurship project based upon this technology for their MBAs. This program, at this university, successfully spins of 25% of their projects as functioning start ups.
What I think we need to do is, figure out how to get industry to share some of the risk with us. We have very smart people, but we have mission driven technology development. If we can get industry to give us a little bit more pull, then we have a better chance of success.
Livingstone: One of the important things for government-funded research centers and organizations is to communicate some of their work to the public themselves because they’re the ones doing the research and they would be the best to communicate it. How do you approach this task of communicating some of the work that you do and how are you adapting to some rapidly changing technologies that allow you to do that?
King: What I would add is that we’re trying to engage people that are age appropriate for the demographic that we’re trying to reach. I would never call myself old, but I’m finding that I’m old. I don’t speak the same language as a 22 year old does anymore. So we are developing approaches that utilize technologies and languages that are used by different generations to reach out to those generations. That is, we’re trying to make sure that the messages that go out appeal to our target age groups so that their interest is piqued enough that they go back and look for further information.