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TR: Has Sematech been aiming in that direction?

SPENCER: Aiming, yes. Hitting, no. When I came to Sematech, I thought, no sweat: I know a lot about systems and software, and we’re going to apply that technology to semiconductor manufacturing. But although the consortium has spent a lot of money trying to do that, we have not yet made significant progress.

TR: Why do you think integrating design and manufacturing is so problematic?

SPENCER: It’s very difficult to go into, say, a Motorola facility that cost $1.5 billion and has to yield $2 billion of revenue each year and say, if you shut your plant down for a week, I’m going to put in this software system that may raise your productivity 20 percent. The people who run the place are going to say, Not in my factory you’re not. Not only is such an experiment risky but careers often depend on how well the factory does that quarter or year. What’s more, the bosses are often physicists or chemists or materials scientists who don’t know much about software systems except that the last time they tried to bring Windows 95 up on their home PC they had to call in some computer expert, and an entire factory is a thousand or maybe a million times as complicated as a home PC. Finally, computer scientists generally don’t talk to other people and other people don’t talk to computer scientists, so it’s difficult to develop the right software.
TR: How can we solve those problems?

SPENCER: We have to get industry leaders more comfortable with software systems, and we’ve got to make the software not only more reliable but also insertable in smaller pieces so operators can link various components rather than risking their entire manufacturing facility.

TR: How do we make sure that industry and government move in that direction?

SPENCER: I would like to see the engineering profession step up and play a major role in setting industrial goals-and indeed, in establishing R&D policy generally, the way physicists did at the end of World War II. The community could do that through the national academies. Those institutions aren’t perfect, but they represent the common ground among universities, industry, and government.

To promote any kind of R&D venture effectively, engineers also need to communicate better with the public, which we are not always willing to do. In my view the arrogance of the scientific and engineering community cost it the superconducting supercollider (which was canceled in 1993). Scientists came in and said we’re going to build this big machine and it’s going to cost a mere $2 billion. Every year that figure went up. And when it got to $8 billion the research community asked President Bush to approach Japan and say, guess what, we’ve got this big hole dug in Texas, the experiments are set, and we’re sorry your scientists didn’t participate in deciding what they will be, but we need $2 billion. 

We know where we want to go in basic science, we know what we need to do in semiconductors, we know what we need to do in software, we know what we need to do in biotechnology; we have clear road maps. But if citizens don’t understand or believe that their lives will be enhanced, their kids smarter, and their air cleaner, then it’s incumbent on the technology community to convince people that what they are doing will indeed pay off.
TR: Shouldn’t social scientists, not to mention representatives of public-interest groups, also help set the goals for R&D?

SPENCER: I believe that getting social scientists to understand technology is harder than getting engineers to understand social issues, especially if engineers are broadly educated. But the notion of including non-engineers in setting R&D policy has great merit. I ran the national defense section of the Galvin Commission, which evaluated the future of the national labs in 1995, and at the last minute an individual from a public-interest organization was assigned to our group. He was a really interesting young man: he arrived with a chip on his shoulder-a feeling that we wouldn’t listen to him-but he also brought a different perspective. He definitely changed the committee, and he underwent a change in his outlook toward us as well.
TR: Aside from working through the national academies, how can engineers become more involved in influencing the direction of R&D?

SPENCER: We’ve got to find a way to get more and stronger technical  people into government-I think our community owes the rest of the world that kind of contribution. If we don’t do everything we can to get more technologically sophisticated people into the administration and Congress, as well as onto congressional staffs, I think the nation’s going to have a real problem, given the profound technological component of so many major issues. I would start by trying to pinpoint the best people in the country and getting them involved, as we did here at Sematech.

Japan does this wonderfully. Some of the top graduates from the best schools in Japan feel it’s an honor to go into government. Yet very few U.S. engineers work on public policy in Washington after obtaining an advanced degree. The dilemma is that if I graduate from Berkeley with a PhD in electrical engineering, I’m tempted to take a job at my thesis adviser’s new company because five years later I may be a multimillionaire. And in this country that’s much more important than going to Washington to try to pass a significant piece of legislation, even though doing that would benefit a great many more people.

TR: Do the nation’s R&D priorities need to change?

SPENCER: When the Cold War ended, the United States was spending most of its research funds in two areas of paranoia: fear of the Soviets, and fear of death. We were putting $15 billion a year into the National Institutes of Health and about a third of a trillion dollars into defense. We don’t have to spend such sums on defense any longer; now we need to learn how to turn our fear of an enemy into a more positive drive to improve the quality of life.

In my younger years, I once proposed that if we’re going to spend $15 billion a year on getting ourselves healthy, we ought to spend at least that much on having something to eat. Rather than hoping for civilian fallout from military spending, we’ve now got an opportunity to focus directly on economic strength, which today is as important as military strength. The National Institutes of Health provide a strong model for creating a science and technology institute that would focus on our national economic health. Alternatively, if you cut the nuclear weapons program and defense R&D by a factor of two, you could add that money to the National Science Foundation.

TR: Congress now often seems hostile to funding anything that’s not basic research.

SPENCER: The people I’ve met in Washington are smart, hardworking, and dedicated. The problem is that we as a technical profession have not been able to get our story across as well as we should. We simply have to work harder at establishing a better relationship with members of the government at all levels.
The most important task is to create a mechanism for learning from past mistakes and successes and for applying the lessons to the next effort. That way we’re always moving in the right direction, and Congress and the pub-lic can be confident that R&D funds are being well invested.

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