Administration to Innovators: Database not Dollars

The new U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology hopes a large federal research database will help spur innovation.

President Bush has spoken often about the need to support innovation, but the funding for it has been something of a mixed bag. While the president’s 2007 budget contains more funding for research in the physical sciences, including nanotechnology and energy-related technology, the life sciences and health-related research are hurting from cutbacks (see “The Budget’s Mixed News”).

The new U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology, Robert Cresanti. (Credit: Department of Commerce.)

Meanwhile, funding for new projects in the Advanced Technology Program (ATP), which is part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has been stopped. In fact, ATP, which was created to help promote emerging technologies still too speculative to garner private investment, will be phased out under Bush’s proposed 2007 budget.

In view of these cuts, Technology Review asked the new Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology, Robert Cresanti, who oversees NIST, why ATP was cut and how the government intends to promote innovation. His answer: by providing more information to researchers in the form of a database of federally funded research results.

Technology Review: President Bush wants to promote innovation, but he’s cutting ATP. Why?

Robert Cresanti: There’s no funding for new [ATP] programs, and I think the [2007] budget zeroes ATP completely out. There is huge financial stress coming down on a lot of different programs. And the decision was made inside the administration that ATP was not a high enough value proposition.

TR: Doesn’t eliminating ATP widen the gap between a new idea and a commercial product?

RC: Yes, there’s the chasm, and there are multiple forces working on it – not all of them are money. An important one is information. What happens is if you’re a young scientist and you haven’t had a lot of experience at finding government programs and funding and so forth, you don’t know any angel capital investors yourself or any venture capital firms that are willing to do any seed money financing, then you have more difficulty. One of the ways to get venture capital to engage at an earlier level is to provide better laid out information on the product that you’re putting together.

TR: How will the government help researchers get this information?

RC: We need to capture the data from the federal research that’s going on. Obviously we can’t, and shouldn’t, and don’t want to require that everybody who has a federal government grant write a 100-page dissertation on all the things that they did. But a database for scientists can help them to understand what has been done before, what has been done in the last couple of years that hasn’t been published.

TR: Don’t researchers already have to report their results?

RC: What happens now is you get a million-dollar grant, and you say here’s what I did with the money, you give your form back to the agency, and the agency says thank you, it’s too bad that didn’t work, and they file it somewhere, and it ends up in an archive somewhere in a building. We need to do a better job of capturing certain elements of that, even if it’s 20 questions or 30 questions, that say What area of science was this that the research was conducted in? What was the nature of the experiments?

I think we need to look at designing a form that captures that information and allows it to be searchable and distributable, so that when people are working on new projects, they can at least pick up the phone and call one of the scientists who worked on this project and quiz him on the state of the art, or on what his experiments or her experiments were about, and how they may be able to build off of them.

TR: This will help with commercialization?

RC: I think so. Take an example of when researchers make a hydrophobic gel that is nano-based. If you drop a drop of water onto it, it literally stands up, repels from the surface almost magnetically. And the thought is, what would happen if you put that on an airplane wing or incorporated that into a material as a coating? They decide they want to go into the federal database and find other people who’ve applied things like Teflon to steel. How did they adhere? What experiments were done? What mechanical procedures did they investigate that we may not know about, that may or may not have worked as well?

So you would have somebody in that space to say to the venture capitalist, “I have this product in this form. It’s not enough to be incorporated into a product yet. These are the three steps that we’re taking. We have information about this, about that, about this, and we’re on a glide path now to where we can get to a venture capital stage within six months. We hope you can work with us.”

The venture capitalist may well say, “It sounds like you can get there from here, if you work with these folks. Why don’t we give you some early seed-stage capital here at this point, just to help you make a trip out to California to visit with the professor or the grad students who have done this work in the past.” So that’s what I’m hoping for here.

TR: Such a database will mean more paperwork for researchers who already have to spend a lot of time on grant applications and report. Some readers might be saying, “Not another form!”

RC: Exactly right. And I understand. But I just think that the government – we’re prying hard-earned tax dollars out of people’s hands – and I think that when we invest them, we have the responsibility to capture results of the research that’s been conducted with them.

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