Repositioning the Advanced Technology Program

What’s New about the New Economy

GLENN R. FONG

Repositioning the Advanced Technology Program

ATP should be refocused to better fill a major gap in the nation’s innovation system.

The Commerce Department’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP) has been the lighting rod of U.S. civilian technology policy during the past decade. Consider the program’s short but volatile budget history. ATP was initially funded in 1990 at $10 million and reached $68 million by the end of the first Bush administration. In 1993, the new Clinton administration promptly tripled ATP’s budget, with plans to boost funding to $1.5 billion, a level comparable to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Indeed, ATP was slated to be the civilian equivalent of that acclaimed agency.

Then beginning in 1995, the new Republican-controlled Congress targeted the program for outright elimination. For the rest of the Clinton administration, ATP was enmeshed in an executive-legislative impasse and limped along with appropriations of about $200 million a year. Now the Bush administration has proposed suspending ATP’s funding.

Awards to corporate labs would still be vulnerable to corporate welfare charges, particularly in the case of big corporations with deep pockets. But because this funding would be directed to the research side of these companies, the force of such charges should be diminished. ATP licensing requirements could also help fend off corporate welfare criticisms. Indeed, part and parcel of a greater ATP focus on longer-range applied research should be requirements for research-oriented organizations to transfer sponsored technology to commercial-oriented organizations (including within the same company). Quite naturally, ATP would not want to fund applied research projects that goes nowhere, staying within the confines of research organizations. Licensing strategies to disseminate ATP project results could become an important criterion in the granting of awards to these organizations. Licensing would also diminish the prospects of any one company consolidating the benefits of an ATP project. In this way, licensing could transform corporate welfare into, at least, broader industry-wide welfare.

  • Support industrially relevant applied research in universities and national laboratories. Current legislation limits ATP awards to industrial for-profit organizations. Universities and federal laboratories are restricted to secondary status in ATP joint ventures led by industry or as subcontractors to single-company ATP recipients.

ATP authorizing legislation should be amended to allow for direct cofunding of industrially relevant applied research in academia and in the national labs. Both of these sectors have, of course, developed keen interests in pursuing commercial applications of their more traditional basic research efforts. ATP should not be shut out from such promising applied research efforts and opportunities. At the same time, ATP should not by any means get into the basic research business. This extension into co-funding of universities and national labs should not extend to ATP support for basic research. That end of the innovation pipeline is already covered by NSF, National Institutes of Health, and other agencies.

  • Support industry participation in applied research collaborations with universities and national laboratories. In addition to direct ATP cost-sharing with universities and federal labs, the program could serve as a supporting third party in university-industry and industry-national laboratory research collaborations. ATP support could be added to university and national lab-funded cooperative research and development agreements, technology transfer programs, and industrial parks.

A longstanding concern about university-industry and industry-national laboratory research collaborations is that commercial technology transfer is often stunted by proclivities toward pure academic research or mission agency R&D as well as more general bureaucratic impediments in universities and the national labs. ATP support for the industry side in these collaborations and its overall experience in providing incentives for commercialization efforts could help break down these technology transfer barriers. This recommendation not only helps to move ATP toward the center of the valley of death, it also moves the program into a central integrative role in networking the nation’s various applied research efforts. Strengthened ATP-university-industry-national lab links could help fill leaks in the innovation pipeline as technologies move from basic research toward product development.

Program Assessment. Reflecting a reorientation toward longer-range applied research, assessments and measures of the program’s achievements should focus on less near-term and less commercially oriented metrics such as publications; licensing; literature citations; joint ventures between award recipients and non-ATP firms; mobility of sponsored researchers into product development, manufacturing, or management positions; and entrepreneurial startups by sponsored researchers.

ATP should be reoriented toward longer-range applied research–in effect, “pre-precommercial” R&D.

The thrust of this list (as compared with the previous list of commercially oriented metrics) is to get ATP-sponsored research out of the lab so that it is broadly available in advance of actual commercialization. The emphasis would be on the startup of new ventures, the establishment of joint ventures, and the mobility of personnel rather than their ensuing commercialization efforts. Technological, personnel, and organizational advances would be emphasized rather than market- or product-level achievements. These types of measures cannot be as easily associated with outright product development or commercialization.

These proposals for the reorientation of ATP toward longer-range applied research should help to insulate the program from the most critical charges of corporate welfare. At the same time, the repositioning of ATP along these lines would solidify its legitimacy in addressing fundamental innovation gaps in the valley of death.

Recommended reading

Advanced Technology Program (see http://www.atp.nist.gov/).

Lewis M. Branscomb et al., Managing Technical Risk: Understanding Private Sector Decision Making on Early Stage Technology-based Projects (U.S. Department of Commerce, Advanced Technology Program, April 2000) (http://www.atp.nist.gov/eao/gcr_787.pdf).

Paul Gompers and Josh Lerner, Capital Formation and Investment in Venture Markets: Implications for the Advanced Technology Program (U.S. Department of Commerce, Advanced Technology Program, December 1999) (http://www.atp.nist.gov/eao/gcr_784.pdf).

House Committee on Science, Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy, September 24, 1998 (http://www.house.gov/science/science_policy_report.htm).

Charles F. Larson, “The Boom in Industry Research,” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 4 (Summer 2000).

Richard S. Rosenbloom and William J. Spencer, “The Transformation of Industrial Research,” Issues in Science and Technology 12, no. 3 (Spring 1996).

Charles W. Wessner, The Advanced Technology Program: Assessing Outcomes (Washington, D.C., 2001).

Charles W. Wessner, The Advanced Technology Program: Challenges and Opportunities (Washington, D.C., 1999).


Glenn R. Fong (fongg@t-bird.edu) is associate professor of international studies at Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, in Glendale, Arizona.