The U.S. government invests a significant amount of money to further research and technology innovation. In 2017, the federal government invested approximately $150 billion in R&D— about one-third at the 17 federal laboratories across the country and two-thirds at universities and private sector R&D institutions, according to government reports. This represents about one-third of all U.S. R&D spending.
Despite this investment, worldwide competition—especially in up-and-coming industries such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics—is growing rapidly.
“The United States is in a competitive environment that is unprecedented in our history,” said Walter G. Copan, PhD, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce.
One of the keys to maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology is improving the transfer of technology from federally funded R&D to the private sector.
“We need to reposition, rebrand the [federal] laboratories as the partners of the future for U.S. industry and for academia alike,” said Copan, who was appointed by President Trump in 2017.
The steps for achieving this goal were outlined in detail in the recently released NIST Green Paper “Return on Investment Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation.” The Green Paper is a result of President Trump’s President’s Management Agenda (PMA), which was released March 20, 2018 and lays out a long-term vision for modernizing the federal government for the 21st century.
The Green Paper outlines five strategies that correspond with the PMA’s Lab-to-Market CAP Goal—identify regulatory impediments and administrative improvements in federal technology transfer policies and practices; increase engagement with private sector technology development experts and investors; build a more entrepreneurial R&D workforce; support innovative tools and services for technology transfer; and improve understanding of global science and technology trends and benchmarks.
In an exclusive interview with R&D Magazine, Copan explained the strategies outlined in the Green Paper and NIST’s vision for raising up federally funded laboratories and improving U.S. innovation.
R&D Magazine: What were the main goals in creating the Green Paper?
Copan: The goal was to engage the community of practice on innovation and technology transfer within academia, industry and government, and to look at ways in which we can create even more value for federally funded research and development—that is R&D at the nation’s federal laboratories and our universities. The goal is to ensure that we are getting technologies into the marketplace as rapidly and as effectively as possible and to enable even more private sector innovation and collaboration to drive economic growth. As we enhance our economy, we strengthen America’s national security at the same time.
The Green Paper is intended to be a discussion document, it’s not a prescription for policy, but rather it is designed to inform next steps that should be taken by government and by stakeholders. The other element is for the community of practice to rapidly identify areas where we can continue to improve the U.S. innovation system to ensure that we are operating at the speed of business at a highly competitive time for the United States as we are looking at the work of the digital economy and the transformations that we are seeing with artificial intelligence. New models of innovation and collaboration are coming out to ensure that our system of technology transfer is as responsive, flexible and as speedy as possible to enable industrial competitiveness.
R&D Magazine: What are the biggest barriers to technology transfer from federally funded laboratories and universities to the private sector?
Copan: Having worked in the private sector and also as an entrepreneur for much of my career as well as having worked at several of the nation’s laboratories, I’ve seen this from multiple perspectives. The Green Paper’s findings identify a series of areas that we trust will lead to future enhancements, decisions and actions to address some of the systemic barriers to collaboration and partnerships between government entities, industry and academia.
There are also areas of clarification that are needed by industry and by the investment community to have confidence that the government is a good and reliable partner and that ultimately the investment decisions that they make are based on the absolute clarity of the pathway to the commercial marketplace that the private sector will bring. Some examples include streamlining federal regulations to provide greater flexibility for partnerships to make it that much easier and faster for private industry to partner with federal laboratories. The granting of reliable and predictable IP rights up to federal R&D results, we believe, will encourage innovation and more private sector R&D investment and interest.
The other element is making it easier for partners in industry and academia to identify the intellectual properties of greatest interest, and in so doing, have the laboratories communicate more effectively utilizing the best modern tools for knowledge dissemination to create the opportunities for partnerships that much more rapidly. It is in part calling for a culture change within elements of the federal enterprise that would make it more attractive, more business-focused and ultimately more production with respect to innovation outcomes through entrepreneurial business, as well as collaborations and technology provisions to our large and more established companies.
R&D Magazine: Have these barriers always been the cause or have there been changes in the landscape that have made things more difficult in recent years?
Copan: First and foremost I think we have to realize that the United States has a tremendously powerful system of innovation and technology transfer and findings from this study are intended to accelerate and modernize the system. I believe these barriers are the result of multiple factors. The tech transfer laws were originally written in the 1980s and the pace of technology development and the applications of the digital economy have resulted in increasingly short product life systems. New business models have emerged and we are now in an era of open innovation and collaborative R&D, so the notion of technology transfer as something that happens over the fence—that everything is sort of created in the federal laboratories and universities and then transitioned to the outside—is a notion that has been modified over the years. We’ve transited to open innovation collaborative models, where we see industry and academia or industry and government partners working together earlier in the cycle.
As we look to the findings to the R&D Green Paper it is intended to provide that greater flexibility, new tools and vehicles around technology transfer and collaboration and to make that interface between the public and private sector even easier to navigate.
R&D Magazine: The paper mentions that the U.S needs to better compete on a global scale in some of the ‘industries of the future’ such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics. What can the U.S. do to bridge the gap?
Copan: Likely next steps include streamlining regulation and legislation that will enable the better protection of IP, greater access to the resources of federal laboratories and more agile partnership models that will create greater value in our economy, resulting from federally funded R&D. There have been concerned about March-in Rights and government use license rights. These have been around since the initial legislation in the 1980s and although March-in Rights have not been invoked, there have been proposals made that they be used for price control, for example in the pharmaceutical sector, which was not the intent of the legislation then nor is the intent now.
The findings also call for enabling the R&D workforce of the country and our federal laboratories and universities to be more entrepreneurial and to be more aware of industry’s needs and operating modes and to increase the flow of capital to the interface between the public and the private sector; to encourage the investment in technologies and technology collaborations with our universities and federal laboratories.
The entrepreneurial workforce is not something that necessarily characterizes all of the federal laboratories, so part of this anticipates a longer range effort in education, in new incentives and in training about entrepreneurship and various elements of technology transfer. Simply recognizing that in the areas that we’ve been talking about—from the quantum revolution and advance communications technologies, autonomous mobility and so on—that the collaborations that are created will be that much more fruitful and protective and sensitive to the needs of industry in a highly competitive global environment.
R&D Magazine: Is more public awareness needed of what research is happening at our nation’s laboratories?
Copan: I think there is a tremendous opportunity to raise the profile of the work that is being done at our nation’s laboratories and to, in essence, remarket them to U.S. industry, to U.S. entrepreneurs. Having worked in large and small companies, those companies had global footprints and would put their research efforts and their investments where they found the impacts to be most productive. In some ways I believe we have to re-incentivize U.S. industry and welcome them back to the interface with our federal laboratory complex. Part of that is not just communications, but indeed to ensure that the workings of these organizations genuinely, like the Green Paper calls for, become more industry-oriented, flexible and agile in their orientation and make it easier for companies, entrepreneurs to discover technologies that are already available or that are under development at the federal labs to make that connection that much more productive and faster.
I think the other element is that there is sometimes complimentary activities going on at multiple federal laboratories or multiple universities. So identifying those connect points in our increasingly networked world, such that broader collaborative opportunities can be identified and cultivated and that the right kind of agreement structures is put in place, I think is another part of this journey as well. Having spoken with a lot of the leaders of U.S. industry I know that some of them have moved to offshore models of R&D, we want to make sure they are making the most of the assets that we have in this country, the facilities, the intellectual fire power and the inventions—the intellectual properties and technologies—coming out of our labs.
R&D Magazine: What are the immediate next steps following the Green Paper?
Copan: I believe that the next steps really are looking at the underpinning legislation and the regulations to ensure that that the appropriate actions will be taken to modernize. There are a series of cultural building and educational opportunities that are called for. We are excited by the response from the federal interagency communit,y that is all the agencies involved in science, technology and innovation.
The Green Paper is not itself the road map; it identifies many of the issues and steps that could be taken. We are in the midst now of formulating action plans with the Lab-to-Market subcommittee of the National Science & Technology Council. That is one of the interagency efforts under the Office of Science and Technology policy that has been a tremendous partner and champion in this effort.
Tool building—we know that some of the systems for reporting on intellectual properties and communicating the availability really can be modernized and so there are efforts underway now to develop new tool kits for communication. We also have heard from the community that certain new types of programs or incentives could be encouraged, such that we will bring more of the kind of innovation outcomes that we are looking for from the federal investment in science and technology in the universities and federal labs.
We have also some best practices that have been identified and we are benchmarking globally as well. Being willing to learn from the other nations of the world and how they are adopting their innovation systems as well is an important part of this journey. The academic community has also been a very strong partner.
We are looking forward to these action plans and priorities to be articulated in the weeks to come and we are excited about what the national conversation about the importance of tech transfer and innovation is leading us to.
The change in legislation that we are seeing as called for in the findings in the Green Paper is something that we have already heard on a bipartisan basis in the House and in the Senate that they are excited to support. We have a highly motivated team of people from the federal laboratory community, from the federal agencies who are excited for the potential that this represents for them to change the game, to make the whole job of technology transfer even that much more facilitated, that much more fun, speedy, and responsive to the needs of industry, and to find new tools of building partnerships and creating a more entrepreneurial workforce.
This is a long-term proposition, so we recognize that is also about constancy of purpose and that requires the leadership of each of our science and technology agencies, the leaders of our universities, take this on as a personal goal to ensure that the greatest possible value is created for the needs of our society, for the economy and for American citizens in the future.
The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity