Turning a Policy Idea into a Pilot Project

By day, Erica Fuchs is a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. However, for the past year she’s also been running a pilot project—the National Network for Critical Technology Assessment—to give the federal government the ability to anticipate problems in supply chains and respond to them. 

The trip from germ of a policy idea to pilot project in the National Science Foundation’s new Technology Implementation and Partnerships directorate has been a wild ride. And it all started when Erica developed her thoughts on the need for a national technology strategy into a 2021 Issues essay. Two years later, the network she called for, coordinating dozens of academic, industry, and government contributors to uniquely understand how different supply chains work, was a real, NSF-funded pilot project. In this episode of The Ongoing Transformation, Erica talks with Lisa Margonelli about how she took her idea from a white paper to the White House, and the bipartisan political support that was necessary to bring it to fruition.

SpotifyApple PodcastsStitcherGoogle PodcastsOvercast



Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and by Arizona State University. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief at Issues.

By day, Erica Fuchs is a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. For the past year, though, she’s also been running a demonstration project to give the federal government the ability to anticipate problems in supply chains so that they can respond appropriately. The road from policy idea to demonstration project in the National Science Foundation’s new technology implementation and partnerships directorate, which is known as the TIP Directorate, has been a wild ride. We thought it would be fun to ask Erica to talk about how she accomplished this, especially since in 2021 she wrote a piece for Issues that laid out the very basic idea for the project. Ultimately, the demonstration project coordinated dozens of academic, industry, and government contributors to uniquely understand what could go wrong in different supply chains, giving policymakers new tools to respond. In this episode, I’ll ask her about the process of turning an academic inspiration into a government capacity.

Hi, Erica. Welcome.

Erica Fuchs: Thank you. Hi, Lisa. Great to be here.

Margonelli: We first met back in the summer of 2021, and since that time you have set up something called the National Network for Critical Technology Assessment, which is the project under or at the TIPS Directorate, which is the new directorate at the National Science Foundation for Technology Innovation and Partnerships. And what you’re doing is you’re exploring building a whole new sort of government capacity for understanding how technology works in the global situation and how to maximize the value of the money that taxpayers spend on technology and scientific investment in the building, supply chains, building jobs in the United States, all of these things. And I really want to talk to you about how you stood this up, how this happened.

Fuchs: Well, I would say that the desire to have analytics and better data and analytics to inform national technology strategy, as I had written in the Issues in Science and Technology article that we wrote together, really came from a place of frustration.

Margonelli: Why were you frustrated?

Fuchs: Well, I had come to a point in time where I believed that the government was flying blind on a number of issues. And if I were going to give two examples, I would give: (1) the example of masks and respirators during the pandemic and (2) the example of the semiconductor shortage.

Margonelli: Okay, so you were frustrated because the government seemed to be flying blind in trying to make decisions basically during the pandemic about how to deal with the semiconductor shortage and how to deal with the shortage of masks. What do you mean flying blind? Where were they flying to?

Fuchs: I dunno. (laughs) So first, I think during the pandemic, I had a fantastic student, Nikhil Kalathil, who realized that he could use publicly available beta and large language models scraping that publicly available data. And that data was specifically small, medium-sized enterprises posting on a B2B site their capability to produce masks.

Margonelli: Okay, so this is small manufacturers in the US who were posting on a site about how they could produce masks and your student went in and scraped it.

Fuchs: Yup, and what he found is that while the government doing the classic textbook thing of bringing together the big five companies that produced masks thought that they had half the capacity they needed, that if you looked at the small, medium-sized enterprises pivoting into this across the country, we had almost twice the capacity that the government at that time thought. And so the government needed that information to make good policy and also to know what those small and medium sized firms challenges were.

And funnily enough, if I take that then and go to the semiconductor example because it’s so importantly different, the government came back to us, and this is such an important piece of this problem, they came back and they said, could you do what you did in masks and respirators in semiconductors? We’ve got this shortage. And the government was worried about the semiconductor industry being not transparent about their actual capacity.

Meanwhile, the semiconductor industry was upset with the automotive industry for essentially doing just-in-time manufacturing. And the automotive industry was upset with government and the semiconductor. Everybody was with each other. And what we came back and said to the government, we brought together an integrated interdisciplinary team that had social scientists and technologists. And I want to double underline “and technologists” because it really was the engineers who helped us reframe the problem. And what we said to government is you’re asking the wrong question. The problem was that designs had been designed to single lines and single fabs. And so these supply chain was so rigid that even if they had extra capacity, they couldn’t move that design to another line and produce it because the lines were tailored to single design. So their problem, and that’s what the engineers helped us understand, was the rigidity of the supply chain leading to supplier monopolies and absolute inability to flex. And what they needed to do is think about design commonalities.

Margonelli: Let’s stop here because this is a really interesting thing. So the government asked, you answered two questions. First you answered on masks, you were like, okay, actually you have more capacity to make masks. And the thing about that all of us noticed during the pandemic was that there were many different kinds of masks that you could use. Whereas in semiconductors, what we realized during the pandemic is that each chip is headed for one thing. It’s headed for one single little thing on your GM car and a different chip is headed for the same thing on your Ford car. And that means that there’s no wiggle room. All the wiggle room in the masks came from the interchangeability. And then you had a completely different set of questions in semiconductors. So let’s go back to flying blind. So you’re frustrated. The government doesn’t know how to ask the questions, how to formulate the questions, and that affects the ability to make decisions and to move resources around.

Fuchs: Can I add one? Ask the questions, formulate the questions, and get the right data?

Margonelli: Yeah. So, sometime in the middle of 2021, I got an email from you and that email was that you had an idea and where was your idea at that point?

Fuchs: So I had been starting to testify in discrete contexts. First, before the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade around the masks work, and then before the House Research and Innovation Subcommittee on Technology. And I had just been asked to write an article, a short article, in response to someone else’s views on industrial policy in the United States. And I felt so, again, frustrated that they weren’t even asking the right questions. And in particular, I was pulling on these two examples I had just given you about the importance of the right questions, the right data, technological depth, but also how different government’s questions are than a firm’s. A firm is maximizing profit and the government has multiple objectives. And so how do we really think about national technology strategy when we have multiple missions. We have security. We have the economy. We have societal wellbeing. And there’s going to be both win-wins and trade-offs and I felt like I couldn’t, in response to this one article, say what needed to be said. I needed a fresh sheet of paper and I needed to get this down.

Margonelli: The piece you eventually wrote is, “What a National Technology Strategy Is—and Why the United States Needs One.” And in that you started to argue that the United States needed to build some kind of government-private-public partnership thing that was able to look into the future and ask these complicated questions.

Fuchs: Yes, and for a matter of fact, the very concept that we didn’t have to wait until we had a semiconductor shortage or until we had an infant formula shortage. That some of these, we could see coming. And not only could we see them coming, we could analyze scenarios and the vulnerabilities associated with those scenarios and potentially, solutions to reduce those vulnerabilities. And that there even was an opportunity to quantify the value to different missions, the value to security, the value to the economy, the value to population health and societal wellbeing. And that then legislators could themselves decide what their values were and the trade-offs, but that we could put those trade-offs and the win-win opportunities in front of them so that you could get past some of these bottlenecks with data.

Margonelli: So this was a good idea. And you published the piece in Issues in early September (2021).

Fuchs: Am I allowed to joke how good an idea it is remains to be seen? (laughs) It was a bold idea.

Margonelli: It was a bold idea. (laughs) And what struck me actually was how much work you were doing on it. Because one morning you called me to make some last minute corrections and you were like, “I have to call you on my watch.” And I thought, okay, well, she’s calling on her watch. And then you said, “Because I accidentally packed my phone into my toddler’s backpack and sent him off to preschool.” And you were getting all these phone calls at the time from the White House. So as you were doing these policy memos, the sort of air around you was heating up, things were starting to boil, you were getting tons of phone calls, you were up all night, you were doing these things, you were keeping the policy memos going forward, and all sorts of testimony and conversations with people. How did you build support for this idea?

Fuchs: First, I would like to say that this past year, but also the period leading up to this year, helped me realize as a professor, you have maybe your research group, but the importance of coalitions, of number of people who see a common vision, are involved. So I think honestly that my VP of Government Relations at Carnegie Mellon, while I know officially they’re registered as a lobbyist, I remember at one point in time when I got to my third testimony, his comment was, I said to him, “Oh my God, third time, what am I going to say?” And he said, “We didn’t get this far for me to tell you what to say.” So just people who saw this as meaningful and wanted to come in behind it. And the fact that as we built these demonstrations, the mask demonstration, the semiconductor demonstration, that people in government across the White House, across agencies were starting to say, “We need this.”

And for a matter of fact, sometimes the answer was, we just don’t have the capacity inside. We just don’t have enough resources, enough people. But also then, the belief of the House Science staff on both sides, the majority and the minority that we need this. Here’s an example. Our semiconductor policy brief on what needed to happen went from the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisors to OSTP, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, also at the White House. The OSTP then passed, including the National Security Council, which is also at the White House. They then passed the policy brief, I believe to the Department of Defense Microelectronics Cross-Functional Team, and to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I felt like it was like a hot cake. It was going around. People were finding it helpful, that reframing it, and of course the Department of Commerce.

Margonelli: To give a little context, part of the reason that they were excited about what you were doing and what you were suggesting about having this standup capacity was that one of the alternatives was to set, say, 10 target technologies that the US was going to work on and have a list. And what you were talking about was something that was much more expandable and responsive. This plan had this adaptability, and so it was attractive to lots of people across the government who were worried about multiple different problems having to do with their own agency’s missions as well as cross-cutting missions.

Fuchs: I think in the beginning on the policy brief around semiconductors, how that went hotcakes through the various agencies kind of being passed along, I think was a lot just about this is useful. It was literally just, this is something different than anyone else has told us. I think that that separate comment of, “I wish I had this capability already now. We don’t have this more broadly.” Some of the things we were saying we were trying wanted to do or try to do, and what you’re raising about the set 10 target technologies and adaptability, I would actually see that as potentially even complementary, right? There’s a difference between saying, this may be important for our country and here’s an easy list of experts thinking this may be important and what to do. Where’s the bottlenecks? Where’s the opportunities for investment? Do we actually need investment in R&D or do we need to get regulation out of the way to have this have impact or get regulation in the way? So the action orientation and the quantification of impacts for different missions, that was really new and helpful.

Margonelli: So it was going around within the government, you have testimony that you’re giving, you’re publishing things.

Fuchs: I had testified twice before the House and the House staffers on the Space, Science, and Technology Committee had gotten this into legislation in the CHIPS and Science Act on the House side. And it then goes into what’s called conference between the House and the Senate, and they decide on what goes forward. We made it even into conference in that version, and that required support from the White House as well as from staffers saying, “We want this to go into legislation.” But then in conference between the House and the Senate, we actually submitted with a series of luminaries, a letter to Congress signed by university presidents and Norm Augustine and John Hennessy, people like that. This would be a good thing. So we got some coalition building going and then it unfortunately did not make it through a conference.

Margonelli: So that must’ve been incredibly disappointing because here you are, you’re rocketing through that fall and things are going on and the sort of tension is going up and up and up, and then it turns out, okay, you’re not in the CHIPS and Science bill. So what happens next? How do you regroup?

Fuchs: Well, it happened all so fast. So in the CHIPS and Science legislation, it has this incredible, really unprecedented mandate. One is for the science advisor to have a national technology strategy. And of course I had written with Issues in Science and Technology about what is and why does the US need a national technology strategy? And then the second is the mandate for NSF TIP with an inter-agency working group to one, identify five societal geostrategic national challenges. Two, identify 10 key emerging technologies, but three, identify how investments in technology could potentially be used to address those national societal inequality geostrategic challenges. And when I looked at that, no one really knows how to do that. And that was so close to what we were talking about. And I had throughout, interestingly enough, been talking to both the science and the commerce side of the agencies. And so I’m not even sure if I could backtrack how it happened, but Erwin Gianchandani said to me, “Why don’t you submit to this BAA — broad agency announcement?” So NSF has these open-ended announcements of how you would do this.

Margonelli: So you submitted.

Fuchs: Yes! And he had some things that he thought were important. This shouldn’t be about a center for a single university. How could we bring the best minds together in the country to think about what the country could do in this area?

Margonelli: So that’s decentralized by definition. So that’s a really interesting idea right there to begin with.

Fuchs: There was no time to be depressed. No time to breathe. (laugh) It was like, hey, the phone rings and you’re like, why don’t you submit your ideas over here? And it shouldn’t be like a center. It should be how do you bring together the best minds in the nation to demonstrate what we can do today? What are our gaps and what a vision would be for how the country should do this? And then he mentioned, oh, by the way, you have four weeks to submit.

Margonelli: And how many pages is this thing?

Fuchs: Well, the original proposal was 10 pages, 22 PIs spanning 13 universities across the country. I would laugh that we had about a week to search, two weeks to write and a week to submit.

Margonelli: Wow! That’s fast.

Fuchs: And the money showed up four weeks later.

Margonelli: The money showed up four weeks later for doing this. That’s amazing. That hardly ever happens.

Fuchs: No, never happens.

Margonelli: You also wrote a big piece for Brookings. So the Brookings is a think tank. And somewhere in this process, you stepped out and you developed the idea even more. Because the idea that you first published in Issues in Science and Technology was really the start of, there were a whole bunch of ideas.

Fuchs: So, interestingly enough, Brookings had approached me about building on the Issues in Science and Technology piece directly. Like, okay, well how would you do this? And as an academic, I have to tell you, I almost didn’t want to write the paper. I was like, well, I don’t know.

The questions were hard and uncomfortable and not the ones I would have naturally asked from an academic institution beyond putting the theoretical concept out there. And it was in the White House at the time, said, Hey, write this up like this. And it was so helpful. And then likewise, Wendy and Estee at the Hamilton Project sort of pushing me into that uncomfortable zone of, well, exactly how would this happen? And what was amazing is that I was working on that, sort of dragging my feet trying to do that when the TIP opportunity came. And so by the time the paper came out, we had just won TIP. And so thank goodness they pushed me.

Margonelli: Okay. Alright. So you got the finances a month after you wrote the BAA application, and then did you get extra funding or is it all just TIP funding?

Fuchs: So we had reason to believe that TIP had about $3 to $4 million to do this. And I think my eyes are easily bigger than my stomach, and I really had certain people I wanted at the table. And those were academics who I knew could demonstrate in specific areas, capabilities that I thought really mattered for this capability for the nation. But what we didn’t have from NSF TIP was they were all academics and you have to have government and industry at the table in making these types of assessments. And so I had been in dialogue with the Sloan Foundation and Danny Goroff at the Sloan Foundation, and then afterwards Sloan came through to convene academia with industry and government so that we could transparently have an open dialogue about the analytics needed and a multilateral conversation and influencing throughout the process.

Margonelli: And just even having those people in the room allows you to get to different levels of information and also different levels of dissemination of what you’re doing. It’s not just pulling the information in, it’s also pushing the analysis out.

Fuchs: Absolutely. And getting early stakeholder feedback so important because for example, as we started doing the analytics in semiconductors, we had early results and we had no idea what the stakeholders were going to think. And we actually thought companies like Intel would be opposed. And when they were like, “we are on board, we think this is what’s needed,” we were shocked. And so knowing that we had stakeholder alignment for what our analyses were suggesting was incredibly important. When you think about transition and change in DC thanks to the Sloan funding, we could have this transparent, open, back and forth dialogue with industry, academia, and government.

Margonelli: You could really pull all the people together. So what you’ve done basically is for the past year. you’ve stood up something that’s like what you want to create, and you’ve done kind of a test case, or do you have a word for what you’ve done?

Fuchs: I would argue that in certain ways we did. Whereas in the beginning, what we talked about, I might’ve done some demonstration examples of specific analytics that could be helpful out of teams at CMU or our research group. We did a demonstration of how you could do this, leveraging the distributed capability of the nation at scale, and then evaluated with those people and the stakeholders we had brought together both what were gaps. So here’s some demonstrations of what we can do, here’s some gaps, what we can’t do and what we should be working on to make this better. And then here’s a vision for how this should go forward.

Margonelli: And you’re now sort of at the vision stage. You released a really big report in September, which will be linked to in the show notes to this podcast. Give me a little sense of where you see it going.

Fuchs: I think looking back at what was truly a herculean year, that was insanely fast. I mean doing demonstrations in six months, we then ran the entire demonstrations through a review. So we had 21 roughly reviewers of spanning academia, industry and government of each of the area demonstrations for research integrity, and then a review of the entire vision and the entire report that spanned academia, industry, and communication in DC policy readiness. This was fast, and it’s one thing at the beginning of the year or in testimony to say, this is what we should do, and it’s another thing to try to implement it. And I guess to your question of what’s that vision? I think what I want to say first is that insane speed with which we implemented this past year demonstrated that academia is an under-leveraged capacity for the US government, but they’re going to have to be bent. There’s a whole bunch of orchestration around it, to bend academia to the government’s problems in a way that could inform national technology strategy and to bring together academia, industry, and government in a way that would lead to fruitful outcomes. And then we can answer your question.

Margonelli: There were many things that struck me as I was reading the latest report. One of them was the recurrence of the word disruptive, and that this needs to take things out of their comfort zone. Academics have to come out of their comfort zone. The people from industry need to come in, government needs to be thinking around corners in a way that it hasn’t been thinking. And we have a story of how we do innovation in this country, which we call linear. And the idea is that you sort of put money into basic science in academia and things trundle along and they gradually become products out in the marketplace. And of course, over the years, we know that that’s not actually accurate. What we also have is a highly chaotic, globalized R&D and translation system. It’s wild. And you’ve been looking at this on its own terms, which is really interesting because a lot of times what gets proposed is that the US adopt an industrial policy model that’s a little bit more like something like what China might do. China has a very high level look at things and then says, okay, pull four more factories over here and do this. Although they also have a very chaotic system. So that story that we tell about that isn’t actually accurate, but that is the story that we tell. You’ve chosen a modified chaos system to meet a very chaotic system and see it on its own terms. I hope you see that as a compliment.

Fuchs: I love it. I love it. I’m going to modify chaos to meet chaos. I just love it. I argue and we argue as this national network in the report that there’s a possibility in the same way that DARPA orchestrates technology outcomes, that it is possible to orchestrate, to have an analytic ARPA to orchestrate the diverse and rich variety of institutions at the frontier of analytic capabilities across disciplines, across academia, FFRDCs (federally funded research and development centers), and government and industry that in the same way DARPA does that for creating technology, we can use that type of program management to synthesize and orchestrate the analytic capacity of the country to inform national technology strategy in a way that is trusted. And I don’t know if anything is objective, but at least a trusted third party.

Margonelli: Any sort of new entity in government has to ultimately have political support to carry on. NASA has worked for 40 years to build political support to survive and is beloved. All new capacities need to have political support. How do you do that?

Fuchs: Well, I think that that is particularly challenging in this moment because as we write in the report, we lack today the intellectual foundations really for how to do this. And so there is a science of various different disciplines, but it can often be hard for those disciplines to talk to each other. So for example, the number of people who can be multilingual and both understand what is being done across the social sciences and engineering and then pair them to national problems is small. And so interestingly enough, I think that one of the political steps is literally taking this report and going across universities and saying, there is this thing. So there were only two pairs, four people, who had ever co-authored together. 80% of the people in the national network had never met each other before this year. And that’s because they came from psychology and data science and sociology and engineering. There’s no reason they should have talked together before.

So step one is saying there’s something different than what exists right now in economics by itself or in engineering by itself. Step two is I actually would argue that I never dreamed that the agencies and the White House and also Congress, in terms of bipartisan, would be as receptive to the need for this. And I think there is a really important need to help the community understand how they can come together so that they fight for this together, so that actually academia and the FFRDCs, RAND and SRI and MITRE, are stronger together, and we’ll move together in a way more that the country needs if we had this type of ARPA-like entity. And so all of us selling together that to government, I think is really important.

And the last I would say is finding a home. So I think that we started this story with Commerce and then NSF, the White House. We were talking to the White House. And so in the long term, where does this capacity for the country belong? I had been told by many people that by being a BAA on the outside, we were able to do a lot of things you can’t normally do inside government. I kept having people inside government saying, “Oh, leverage that. Wow. We could have never have done that.” And at the same time, there is a certain protection of government. There can be questions about why this leadership or why this, who gets to run this? And if it has to be orchestrated, it has to be somewhere. You can’t continually submit BAAs. So I think figuring that out is going to be a dialogue inside government, and I do have ideas about that.

Margonelli: Well, I’m so excited to see whatever happens next. So we should stay tuned and we hope to interview you in a year and see what’s happened since then. Thank you so much, Erica. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.

Fuchs: This has been fantastic, Lisa. Thank you for your great questions.

Margonelli: If you would like to learn more about Erica’s work, check out the resources on our show notes. We have links to all of her white papers. You can subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcast. Thanks to our podcast producers, Sydney O’Shaughnessy and Kimberly Quach, and our audio engineer Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Marelli, editor-in-chief at Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for listening.