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Economy, Energy, and Entrepreneurship: Argonne National Laboratory

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 3:57am
R&D Editors

Argonne National Laboratory's Deborah Clayton speaks on topics including funding, peer review, entrepreneurship, nanotechnology research, and communicating research missions in a social networking environment.

Paul Livingstone, Moderator: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, just to establish things and get everyone talking.

Deborah Clayton, Argonne National LaboratoryDeborah Clayton, director, Argonne National Laboratory's Technology Development & Commercialization Division
I currently serve as Director of the Technology Development and Commercialization Division at Argonne National Laboratory. This division is the point of contact for all industrial business development efforts including Work for Others (WFO) contracts and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements or CRADAs. It also is responsible for the management and deployment of the laboratory’s intellectual property portfolio. My professional experience also includes experience in academia, industry, state government and co-founding a high-tech start-up.

Livingstone: One aspect of government-funded research that may not be as well appreciated by, say, researchers at private companies, or even perhaps our readers, is how projects of national security or importance are assigned to national laboratories or research centers.

Identify how your organization fits into this process and if you've seen some changes recently or over time.

Clayton: The national laboratories solve important problems in fundamental science, energy, and national security, collaborating with academia and industry to develop and deploy scientific and technological solutions in support of national needs.

As part of our mission, we conduct world-leading research in the physical, chemical, biological, and information sciences. We seek discoveries that will advance U.S. energy independence and leadership in clean energy technologies to help assure clean, reliable, abundant, and affordable sources of energy, today and in the future. We also work to enhance national security, both through anti-proliferation technologies and through research that helps to identify and avert or mitigate potential threats.

Through our tremendous scientific and engineering capabilities, we also can address immediate and unexpected challenges, as the national laboratory system demonstrated after 9/11. Through our work on technology development and problem solving in the realm of arms control and nonproliferation, the laboratories developed a skill and technology base that enabled us to provide immediate assistance in counter-terrorism and homeland security after the attacks.

After the Gulf oil spill, national laboratory scientists used high-performance computing to model the spread of the spill, and the Department of Energy provided online access to schematics, pressure tests, diagnostic results, and other data about the malfunctioning blowout preventer.

Our first-rate workforce of research scientists, engineers, and support personnel is a tremendous resource that can move swiftly to address a wide array of critical issues, whether related to the environment, national security, or any other top national priority.

In many cases, our researchers develop proposals for projects that are aligned with our mission and based on our core capabilities, and then compete for funding from our sponsor, DOE—most often, from the Office of Science, which is the lead federal agency supporting fundamental scientific research for energy and the nation's largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. The Office of Science makes extensive use of peer review and federal advisory committees to develop general directions for research investments, to identify priorities, and to determine the very best scientific proposals to support.

Livingstone: In recent years, there's been discussion about the peer review process. And, there have been some questions about its effectiveness and even its integrity. What is your organization's opinion about the effectiveness of the current approach to peer review, which relies on anonymity and assumptions of honesty? And, explain changes that you'd like to see with this approach.

Clayton: Peer review is critically important within the DOE laboratory system for a number of reasons.

From the standpoint of our scientists, subjecting research conducted at the national labs to the judgment of other expert scientists is an important means to gauge the quality and impact of their work. Publishing in leading peer-reviewed journals also is an extremely effective means of making our research readily available to the broader scientific community—which is an important aspect of our mission.

Clearly, Argonne is deeply committed to publication of research conducted on our campus. Last year, research at the Advanced Photon Source alone produced more than 1,000 refereed publications, and Argonne scientists are consistently included in lists of researchers whose work is most widely cited, or has the greatest citation impact—a weighted measure of influence. So we believe that the peer-reviewed publication process aligns well with the work that we do.

One concern that we do have involves multidisciplinary research. At Argonne, as at our sister labs, we work to promote cross-cutting research that brings together all-star teams of researchers from a variety of disciplines. These types of multidisciplinary teams can yield extremely creative and interesting research results. It is important for peer reviewers and publications to recognize this, and to encourage this high-impact work.

Livingstone: Research and funding in nanoscale technology has been increasing for both basic research and increasingly in product development. Recent findings are shedding some light on the effect of nanomaterials on biological systems. I'm wondering if this affects any research that is taking place at your organization. And, if you feel that some more regulation may soon follow as a result of some of these findings?

Clayton: Argonne's Center for Nanoscale Materials is an important user facility, and we are fully committed to making sure that all research involving nanomaterials is done in a safe, secure manner that protects workers, the public, and the environment.

We are proud of our record of safety in dealing with many different potentially hazardous materials, and we work hard to ensure that we are complying with best practices in safety in all the work that we do at Argonne.

As far as regulation is concerned, all of our work involving nanoscale materials is subject to DOE Order 456.1, which was approved earlier this year. Going forward, we will continue our vigilance regarding nanoscale materials and any other potential hazards, and we will do whatever is needed to ensure the safety of our laboratories and the surrounding communities.

Livingstone: How does your organization make adjustments to changes in funding or times when funding seems uncertain? And, that seems to have been quite a bit recently.

Clayton: As we all know, the national laboratory system continues to face budget uncertainties. The ongoing national debate about America's investment in scientific research has made us keenly aware of the need to achieve our mission more efficiently and to find ways to reduce spending wherever possible.

To support that effort, Argonne has implemented a reorganization plan designed to increase efficiency and enhance delivery of our mission support functions. That plan included elimination of about 70 positions, a move that is expected to save the laboratory about $13 million a year.

By trimming our operations and refocusing on the bottom line, we are demonstrating our fiscal responsibility, improving the delivery and effectiveness of our mission support functions, and safeguarding the laboratory’s ability to do groundbreaking science in the months and years ahead.

We also are expanding our outreach to potential collaborators in industry, to raise their awareness of our exceptional facilities and research expertise. Through cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) and Work for Others agreements, we can provide unique research capabilities to industry. These agreements give our industrial partners access to research opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them, and they also constitute a revenue stream for Argonne.

Additionally, we are developing new models of licensing—both exclusive and non-exclusive—that will create revenues both today and going forward. However, our mission always will be to address the most important scientific and societal needs of our nation, and to world-class science, engineering, and user facilities to deliver innovative research and technologies in our national interest. So even though we hope to build stronger collaborative partnerships with industry, our main focus always will be science and engineering in the public interest—and for that reason, the Department of Energy will remain the major sponsor of our work.

Livingstone: Now, even if Solyndra represents a single event and perhaps a small percentage of this type of government loan guarantee, there is the risk of other publicized commercial failures related to government funded research. What will this type of possibility mean for your organization? How do you plan to respond to such events? And, what are your thoughts about the current situation?

Clayton: The U.S. need for abundant, clean energy is not going away, and substantial investments in early-stage research will be necessary to achieve success in clean energy technologies. Affordable, practical green energy technologies are critical both to our domestic economy and to our global economic competitiveness.

Look at what's happening in other countries. The Energy Technology Innovation Project, at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, closely reviewed the energy research and development investments of the governments of Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, China, and South Africa. In 2007, those six countries were collectively responsible for a third of the world's energy consumption, driven by China's growing energy use.

The data suggest that in 2008, the governments of those six countries invested at least $13.8 billion in energy RD&D. China alone invested $7.2 billion in energy R&D. That compares with $12.7 billion by the IEA member countries—and $4.1 billion by the United States that year. That's a little more than half of the Chinese government investment.

The United States simply cannot afford to fall behind in energy research. If we do, it will be a devastating blow to the future of our economy.

Livingstone: The economy's going through a difficult time, making politics also very difficult. What's your perspective on how government-funded research can really help turn things around or at least get things moving forward a little more quickly now that they appear to be a little stuck? How can this type of research stimulate the economy, perhaps stimulate jobs?

Clayton: In 1963, Charles Killingworth, an automation expert at Michigan State University, warned a Congressional committee that the end of American consumerism was in sight. 99.5% of homes with electricity already had refrigerators. 93% had televisions. 83% had washing machines. The only sharply rising sales curve in the consumer durables field—the only hope for increased consumer-driven manufacturing—was the electric can opener industry.

Today, as we see people lining up to buy the latest iPhone or a new flat-screen television, that solemn prediction of the twilight of American consumerism is laughable. But at the heart of that wildly off-base prediction is a misunderstanding of the economic impact of scientific research.

Over the past half century, more than half of the growth in our GDP has been rooted in game-changing scientific discoveries, and the national laboratories are committed to making sure that the United States retains its global competitiveness. Although the United States still leads the world in computers, communications, biotechnology, aerospace, and other technology industries, we face real challenges in these areas—challenges that must be addressed by investment in R&D. We must work to revive U.S. manufacturing, particularly in high-tech, and we will succeed only if we out-discover and out-innovate our international competition.

Here's one great example—the Global Positioning System (GPS), which was initially a government technology developed to guide nuclear missiles. When GPS technology was transferred to private industry, it triggered the development of a worldwide location technologies market, which is growing by leaps and bounds and is expected to hit $75 billion next year.

Today, almost all currently operating nuclear power plants rely on light-water reactors derived from research done at Argonne National Laboratory in the 1950s and 1960s. For more than half a century, Argonne's scientists and engineers have been international leaders in the development of safe nuclear energy. It is impossible to calculate how many billions and billions of dollars in economic activity have been generated the creation of the nuclear power industry, and by the electricity generated by nuclear power.

Those are the kinds of discoveries that we seek at the national laboratories—those types of game-changing innovations that yield extraordinary economic benefits across decades. And government investment is necessary to support the years of research required to make those discoveries and to develop them into practical technologies with real commercial value, that can be transferred to industry and commercialized.

Livingstone: One of the important things for government-funded research centers and organizations is to communicate some of their work to the public themselves because they're the ones doing the research and they would be the best to communicate it. How do you approach this task of communicating some of the work that you do and how are you adapting to some rapidly changing technologies that allow you to do that?

Clayton: First of all, let's not overstate the influence of Twitter on the attention span of the American public. According to a study released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 2% of Americans regularly use Twitter to get their news, and only 7% regularly got news through social networking platforms.

Moreover, digital platforms are actually expanding the amount of time Americans spend with the news each day. In 2000, the Pew study found that people reported spending an average of 57 min a day getting the news from radio, TV, and newspapers. Today, they spend about the same amount of time getting news from those sources. But they also spend an additional 13 min a day accessing news on digital platforms. So, as a result, Americans are actually devoting more time to the news than they did a decade ago.

Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that we are in fierce competition for the attention—and support—of the American public. It is very easy for those of us working inside the national laboratories to focus so tightly on our mission that we forget our continuing responsibility to let the American people know about the work that we're doing. We also can become so steeped in our own disciplines that we find it difficult to discuss our work in terms that laypeople can understand. We also can get so deep in the weeds technically that we fail to convey the excitement and the news of what we are doing.

To build support for the work that we do—and the work that we want to do in the future—we need to have a continuing conversation with the public at large. And that conversation should include everyone who works in the laboratory system. We need to engage with the public in the communities that surround our laboratories, and also in venues far from our campuses. The national laboratories are amazing assets, and the work that we do is game-changing. We need to make sure that we tell that story—simply, clearly, effectively, and repeatedly.

We can't expect people to come to us and ask us what we're doing. We need to take our message to the nation—and while we’re not limited to 140 characters, we need to find ways to keep it relatively short and sweet.

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