The National Science Foundation Has A New Goal: Entrepreneurship

17:25 minutes

an older indian man in a suit tie in a meeting room sitting a desk, with an older white man and woman, also in suits, sitting behind him. a small microphone is in front of him as he looks to his right
NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. Credit: National Science Board/NSF

The South By Southwest festival in Austin this year was the site of at least one unusual event: a press announcement by the head of the National Science Foundation, the primary federal agency tasked with funding and supporting fundamental research and investing in the education of young scientists in those fields.

NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan announced he was creating a new directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) to focus on “use-inspired” research that can be brought to commercial markets, in partnership with businesses and entrepreneurs. The goal, Panchanathan said in a press release in March, was to “accelerate the development of new technologies and products that improve Americans’ way of life, grow the economy and create new jobs, and strengthen and sustain U.S. competitiveness for decades to come.”

Panchanathan talks to Ira about what this new chapter means for the NSF, the future of basic research with no immediate commercial uses, and the challenges of persuading the public that failure, as much as success, is inherent to science.

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Segment Guests

Sethuraman Panchanathan

Sethuraman Panchanathan is the director of the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Analysts say the US innovation system is slowing down. The Harvard Business Review put it this way in 2019. Productivity is lower than it was more than 100 years ago despite increased investment in scientific research. “If we want to see greater productivity growth,” says the Review, “we need to explore alternative ways to translate science into invention.”

Perhaps the folks at the National Science Foundation came to that same conclusion, because the NSF, which is the funding source for almost 30% of the total federal budget for basic research at US colleges and universities– the NSF recently created a new directorate, sort of a new division. And they call the directorate TIP, Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships, which has the same idea– helping research get turned into products. It’s the first new directorate in 30 years, so it must be pretty important, and for good reasons.

Anyone who has watched the US share of the world’s innovation technology and high-tech manufacturing on the decline might be interested to learn more. And we are, so we’ve invited the head of the NSF to tell us about TIP. Joining me now is NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan. He was appointed in 2020. Welcome to Science Friday.

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Thank you so much, Ira. Good to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: I want to say you’re in good company, because over the 30 years, we’ve spoken with just about all of the NSF chiefs, from Walter Massey to Rita Colwell to your predecessor France Córdova So thank you for taking time to join with us today.

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Thank you, and it’s great to be in that company. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Let me begin by saying, it’s not every year or every decade that you create a new directorate. You said in a statement very simply that the objective of the TIP directorate is to translate research into practical application. I’m asking why you’ve decided you have to do this.

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: So we feel that this is a moment in the nation for us to strengthen at speed and scale. As you can see when you look at the global competition, you find that the ideas and talent that is across our nation is not fully tapped and fully realized. And that’s the reason that we are launching this directorate, to rapidly translate those fantastic exploratory ideas and curiosity-driven research into translatable outcomes where appropriate, and so that it might result in the kinds of outcomes that you speak about.

How might it increase the productivity? How might it bring about unbelievable talent, being able to get the jobs of the future? How might that inspire more entrepreneurial ventures, not just in a few locations across our nation, but in every part of our nation?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. One of the stated goals of TIP is sustaining and enhancing US competitiveness on a global stage. What has happened in the US that has diminished its competitiveness, and how will you change that?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: So what I would say is, US has always been competitive. What we’re trying to say right now is that as the external countries and other parts of the globe are starting to also compete, now US has got an opportunity to further expand, further speed up, further scale up what we are doing and what we have been doing. And that’s the moment that we are in.

Two reasons– one, we have got the capacity to do this. We want the aspirations of every region of our nation to be fully realized, also. And that’s why this moment is very special. The capacity is there. The desire and the aspiration is there. So we’re bringing it all together at this moment, which is very exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Well, do you think that Intel, or Nvidia, or Apple needs help moving their research from R&D to the consumer market? Or are we talking about helping smaller research labs that already are receiving funding from NSF but can’t take that next step?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Both. So when you look at large companies like Intel and others, we have always had partnerships with Intel. I mean, just look at the recent announcement of Intel and their $20 billion investment that they’re making in the state of Ohio. Now, NSF has got $100-million partnership as part of that in terms of, how do we look at research of future semiconductor and advanced semiconductor ideas, materials devices, things of that nature, at the same time, also, preparing the talent in community colleges, in universities, and others so that we might then have these robust futures that Intel has been delivering and will deliver into the future. And NSF becomes a nice partner. You would think of us as a catalyst, an enabler, and an enrichment activity.

IRA FLATOW: Now, President Biden’s 2023 budget request has $880 million in it toward you and the new established directorate. Do you think you’re going to have a tough sell in Congress?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: I’m so grateful to the administration and the president for putting together a strong budget for NSF, realizing the importance of the moment that we just spoke about. But I also have to tell you that we have got strong bipartisan support in Congress. Whenever I speak to any of the members in Congress, there is always a strong bipartisan support around these two themes that we have just been discussing, that this is a moment of global competition, which is motivating us, inspiring us to do even better, more, faster.

At the same time, there is also the recognition that talent and ideas that are democratized across the nation have tremendous possibilities. And therefore, it is incumbent upon us to provide those opportunities, and that NSF can do both of these things at speed and scale. And therefore, there is a recognition of the importance of the role of NSF as a vehicle of delivering this progress that we are talking about.

IRA FLATOW: I have to turn the tables on you for a moment right here, because I know that when I have written NSF proposals for funding over the years– and I’ve written many of them going back almost 50 years– I’ve always had to say, how do I measure success, right? You look at a proposal, there’s going to be– how do you measure success? How will you measure whether you have been successful in your project?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: So we have many metrics of success that we are putting together. And one of them is how much these companies that we are launching are securing venture capital so they can then grow and become successful ventures. So that would be one. How many jobs are we creating because of these existing industries that are able to scale, as well as new companies that are forming? And what kind of jobs are being created? What kind of problems, like climate change or the pandemic, that we have at hand– how are these being solved because of the investments that we are making in the regional innovation ecosystems that is being built all across the nation?

So there are many such mechanisms. How much new venture capital resources are these companies attracting? So there are these measures and more that can really tell you– these are good thermometers of measurement in terms of seeing whether we are actually making progress. So we’ll be able to demonstrate the progress that we are making in a very tangible way.

IRA FLATOW: When we talk about research that companies can use, we’re not talking about basic research, the very fundamental exploration of how things work, which is the key to the entire mission of the NSF, is being able to fund really basic research. Should scientists doing foundational research worry that they’re competing for the same resources for scientists who might be creating devices that can be sold on the marketplace?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: So that’s a very good question, Ira. I just want to say that these are not either/or. These are and.

That is what we are doing, is as you demonstrate that you’re able to deliver these kinds of outcomes, as more exploratory research becomes translated to outcomes– not that all of them will, and not all of it should, either, because there is high-risk research that happens, and some of them may not necessarily have translatable outcomes. That’s perfectly fine. But where it is available, if you are able to translate them and show the value, then that only increases the investments further, which then further enriches the investments in the exploratory research. So I don’t see this as this versus that. It is this and that and more.

I’m already seeing this, Ira. Just the launch of the AI Institutes two years ago– we have companies like Google, Amazon, Accenture, Intel, and others are all co-investing with us. So that’s because of the fact that they see that this research is not only going to be about the curiosity-driven research– which is exceedingly important, and we need to unleash that at absolutely the highest scale possible– but that it is also resulting in these translatable outcomes that industry finds very valuable. So they want to partner and co-invest with us. Likewise, they expect that cities and states and other partners, foundations and others, will find reasons to want to co-invest with NSF so we can build these at much higher scales than even what we are doing right now with the fantastic federal investments that we are receiving every year.

IRA FLATOW: Well, those are giant companies that you mentioned, the giga-giant companies. But does that mean if they’re getting money, if they’re co-investing with you, what about the smaller companies, the smaller companies that need a leg up in getting their products researched and on the market? Do you have enough money for, as you say, for both things?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Yes. So if you look at the SBIR programs, the Small Business Innovation Research programs, this is precisely targeted at those small companies which are looking to seeing how they can have those critical investments for them to grow into successful ventures. For example, in 1982, Gary Hendrix was funded by an NSF SBIR grant, and that was for the funding company called Symantec, which is now a global leader in cybersecurity. Likewise, Qualcomm was launched after co-founder Andrew Viterbi invented the Viterbi algorithm. After receiving the NSF SBIR funding during the ’80s in its early years as a small business, Qualcomm has grown to become a world leader in wireless technologies and particularly 5G, a critical technology and industry. So there are many, many examples like that, where the SBIR investments made by NSF has helped those small companies to secure venture capital, grow, and become successful ventures. So it’s doing both at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: I have one last question for you, and this is about how TIP looks at inclusiveness. And let me just quote from your own documents. “TIP will also nurture STEM talent by focusing on the engagement of populations long underrepresented in STEM, along with broad organizational changes, e.g. at institutions of higher education, and the inclusion of diverse institution types such as minority-serving institutions,” unquote. Can you give me an idea of how exactly this will work?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Absolutely. So as you can imagine, Ira, talent is available all across the nation. And so when you look at institutions, institutions are of various types. We have the Research 1 institutions doing fantastic work in terms of research, and the outcomes speak for itself. Then there are the class of institutions that we call them as minority-serving institutions– the historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities– and the R2 institutions. They are all spread across the nation. Some of those minority-serving institutions are also R1 institutions.

Now, talent is everywhere. And therefore, how do you now invest in programs that ensures that all of these talent in all these institutions– and community colleges, also– how do you lift up all this talent everywhere so that we might then realize the scale up and the speeding up that I talked about of this innovation potential and the acceleration of progress, both economic and societal? And so that’s what TIP is focused on.

That’s what NSF has been focused on. I just want to be very clear that this is the mission of all of NSF in addition to TIP. And therefore, we are taking precise steps in terms of programs designed and sometimes co-created by listening to people from the outside community telling us what is working, what is not working. And therefore, we’ll be able to plan those programs that can actually be successful. And so that’s what we are doing right now.

We are also developing at NSF mechanisms for support for those institutions that don’t have the infrastructure to be able to get the ideas that they have translated into successful proposals and then prevail in the gold standard merit review process of NSF. And that, again, requires investments made not relying on the institutions to make it themselves, because until they reach a critical mass of research activity, they may not have the resources to invest.

IRA FLATOW: Just a reminder, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking to NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan about a new effort to bring research out of the lab and into the marketplace.

I said that was the last question. I lied. I have one more question for you, because it’s a question about patience. I recently watched a Ted Talk from four years ago in which the speaker was the chief research and innovation officer at Arizona State University, talking about innovation. Do you remember? Do you know who I’m talking about?

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Yes. Yes, I remember looking myself in the mirror.

IRA FLATOW: It’s you, of course, and you said, if you want innovation, what you need is not only celebrating success like we’ve been talking about, but celebrating failure, too, honoring failure, generating an environment that allows people to fail and fail fast. Do Americans understand that? And when you talk about research and you talk about innovation, that it may take some time, it may take some money that looks wasted, but is really not.

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: That’s an excellent point, Ira. You’re absolutely correct. So I often talk about the length of time it sometimes takes for even some of these ideas to be realized, right? But when you have a portfolio of ideas, some ideas are high-risk ideas. They may fail.

And people learn from failures, and failures are stepping stones to success, as we say. And then they build on the idea, and then they work on it, and then they fail again. And then they build on it again, and then they succeed.

And some, we learn a lot from the failures itself. That learning is exceedingly important, as much as the successful outcome itself. And some ideas may happen, translate, in a decade’s time. Some may take a few years. Some may take several decades.

So what I’m trying to do, Ira, is to communicate that by giving examples, examples of things that have taken several decades to realize the ultimate success, some which take a few decades, and I give examples of that. Let’s take AI. AI has been a sustained investment. We see it today as an exciting technology. Yes, we have lots of challenges, like bias, ethics, privacy, security, which we need to solve.

But that did not come about just today. It was sustained investments by NSF and other entities for several decades. And here we are, potentially enjoying the outcome of the AI-related activities. So it’s important that people understand this.

And storytelling is important. That’s why this interview, for me, is exceedingly important. Storytelling is important. I strongly encourage all your listeners, Ira, to please go to NSF websites. There are many stories and videos that will explain this even better in terms of people actually talking about their success stories.

And you talked about the metrics– one of the things that we are working on as we speak is working with the board to be able to derive the metrics more concretely. But as you said earlier, sometimes things can be nailed down in numbers. Sometimes it is storytelling. Sometimes it’s anecdotes. Sometimes it is– you know? These failures that we should be able to talk about and celebrate, too. So that’s what I’m trying to temper the expectations in a way, that all of this are part of how we’ll measure progress.

IRA FLATOW: Well, when I talked about failures, I remember years ago that when a solar project at a big company was failed– because these things happen– that its critics picked it up so heavily and threw it at the government, saying, look what you’re spending $100 million or more on, a failure, not understanding that there are failures that are necessary.

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Yes. Absolutely. I think that culture has to be– absolutely. I think the more successes we are able to point to, people will have, I think, a better tolerance for failures. You talk about patience. Sometimes, when they know the potential and what has been achieved, they are more ready to forgive the failures. So I think we need to do a better job celebrating our successes and also pointing to some of those successes having failed along the way and then achieved the successes, so they’ll be able to get a feeling that success and failure are both two sides of the same coin.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you great success in your new directorate.

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Thank you so much, Ira. I really appreciate you giving us the time to be able to talk about this.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan is director of the National Science Foundation. He joined us from Washington, DC.

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