Democratizing Talent and Ideas


“Talent and Ideas Are Democratized in the Sense That They Are Everywhere”
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The new National Science Foundation director, Sethuraman Panchanathan, or Panch, as he encourages us to address him, shows in his Issues interview (Spring 2021) why he was chosen to lead NSF at this challenging time for the agency and the country. He has the ideal background, vision, energy, and passion to take on the task. That will all be tested as NSF moves into new territory—not uncharted, but not quite traditional either.

At a time when American leadership, its economy, and indeed the future well-being of its people are being challenged as never before, the nation’s political leaders are turning to NSF to play a particularly important role. They are asking for it not only to “promote the progress of science,” as the beginning of the agency’s mission statement reads, but to ensure that scientific discoveries and inventions are put to use by supporting translation to industrial application. Concerns have been raised about whether this is a proper role for NSF, whether this new responsibility will erode NSF’s tradition of excellence in supporting basic research in most nonbiomedical areas of science and engineering, and whether NSF can deliver.

The proposed bipartisan, bicameral Endless Frontier Act (renamed the Innovation and Competition Act), sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Senator Todd Young (R-IN), and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI), is unprecedented in its proposed funding and bold challenges for NSF, including the creation of a new directorate focused on technology and innovation. It represents a major step up in NSF’s funding, responsibilities, and expectations on the part of Congress. 

At a time when American leadership, its economy, and indeed the future well-being of its people are being challenged as never before, the nation’s political leaders are turning to NSF to play a particularly important role.

On the House side, the proposed National Science Foundation for the Future Act is also bold and contains many of the features of the Senate counterpart, but with more emphasis on traditional research programs and on education and human resources. President Biden has similar aspirations for NSF and is proposing a 20% increase for the agency for fiscal year 2022, which, in part, will also fund a new directorate.

At this moment I would not venture to predict the outcome. But it’s clear that NSF is likely to be challenged to expand the scope of its activities—hopefully, with substantial additional funding. So, the questions are apt: Why NSF? And, can NSF do this job?

Serving as NSF’s tenth director, I was privileged to see firsthand how its program managers and support staff work so effectively and efficiently to get the most out of the agency’s relatively small budgets. I experienced the benefits of advice and cooperation from the National Science Board, which shares policymaking authority with the director. And I had a chance to study how NSF, over seven decades since its founding, has been able to adapt its programs to changes in the science and engineering disciplines and in requirements for new experimental facilities and research modes, and also to incorporate the most effective approaches to improving STEM education and inclusiveness. And it has done this while continuing to fund the most meritorious basic research proposals, using expert peer review. I am confident that NSF can do the job.

As to why NSF? I don’t see any other independent agency that could better do what is being asked of NSF. And there is no time to create one. Congressional leaders believe that a lead agency is needed and they have turned to NSF to play that important role. But I want to be clear on this: the challenge the United States faces in the coming decades, primarily from the rapid rise of China, is larger than what any one agency can do.

Fortunately, the federal government has many mission agencies that support excellent research, and it will be necessary for all of them—the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and others—to be given additional funding so they can prioritize and coordinate their research activities in support of President Biden’s list of charges to his science advisor and Office of Science and Technology Policy director Eric Lander, who now sits on the president’s Cabinet.

Senior Fellow, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

Former Director, National Science Foundation, 1993–1998

When asked to comment on the interview with National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan, I paused because I felt he had covered the subject so brilliantly and comprehensively that there was little I could add. Instead, I decided to focus on ways in which synergies within the “research triangle” (academia, industry, and government) amplify advances in science and technology to meet national objectives. Vannevar Bush, the architect of postwar US science policy, and Arthur Bueche, the influential head of research and technology at General Electric, were not only early advocates of building synergies within the triangle; they also personified the pursuit of these synergies in their own careers.

NSF nurtures synergistic research through interdisciplinary collaborations. In so doing, bright graduate students from all over the world come to US universities to pursue doctorate degrees in science and engineering under highly recognized faculty, many of foreign origin.

What Bush and Bueche would find amazing if they were alive today is the extent of innovation and entrepreneurship now taking place within the research triangle. Many universities have established centers to teach innovation by both learning and doing, foundries for rapid prototyping and testing, start-up centers for enterprise development, legal counseling for preparing and filing patents, and university-managed research parks for nurturing start-ups and attracting venture capital.

Technically aligned companies now locate development centers in proximity to these universities not only to gain access to unique research instruments and facilities but also to recruit top talent.

Government agencies play key roles in advancing science and technology developments within the triangle. They do so not only through their own laboratories but also through federally funded research and development centers, university-affiliated research centers, and cooperative research and development agreements by which they share their facilities and expertise with private companies to aid them in new product developments. Also included are industry technology development clusters, corridors, and parks in proximity to Department of Energy and Department of Defense laboratories and to NASA research centers.

Government agencies play key roles in advancing science and technology developments within the triangle.

By examining the types of collaborative science and technology clusters in the United States, one can appreciate the many ways in which entrepreneurial push can join with commercialization pull to build bridges across the so-called valley of death between R&D activity and commercial use. If one examines the distribution of these centers and clusters among the 50 states, one finds fewer than five not significantly represented.

Finally, it is important to delineate the difference between “incubators” and “concentrators.” All of the examples mentioned above are incubators of scientific discoveries, new technologies, and economic growth. Concentrators exist primarily in large metropolitan areas that attract rapidly growing innovative enterprises because of their proximity to supply chains, transportation hubs, air- and seaports, markets, and large-enterprise services (business, legal, and financial).

Economic growth concentrates as it migrates from distributed incubators to regional concentrators. It doesn’t follow that by increasing the geographic distribution of incubators that a greater distribution of concentrators will follow without substantial infrastructure investment.

David A. Ross Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering Emeritus

Purdue University

Cite this Article

“Democratizing Talent and Ideas.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 4 (Summer 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer 2021