Editorial: Refocusing Fed-funded R&D
The U.S. Dept. of Commerce's Advanced Technology Program (ATP) funds early-stage, high-risk research that might not be taken on without government support. Technologies developed through the ATP potentially can bring economic growth and benefits to the entire nation, not simply to benefit individual award recipients. ATP has been controversial since its beginning in 1988, being criticized as corporate welfare (funding large companies that have the resources to conduct independent research), and as funding research too close to product development. Program stability has been hindered by these ongoing debates.
The DOC says ATP funding has been beneficial and basic research continues to be a priority for federal investment in science and technology. Commerce Secretary Don Evans notes that it is necessary for ATP to become more responsive to the changing research and business environments and be given a greater degree of stability to fully achieve its promise. Therefore to get things back on track, Secretary Evans initiated The Advanced Technology Program: Reform with a Purpose, a report that presents six recommendations for improving the program. Implementation of these reforms should provide ATP with the proper tools and direction it needs to be effective in the 21st Century, says Evans.
The proposed reforms would:
- Recognize the significant value of the resources that institutions of higher education offer by allowing universities to lead ATP joint ventures
- Offer universities increased incentive to participate in developing commercially relevant technologies by allowing them to negotiate with joint venture partners over the rights to hold the intellectual property that results from research
- Limit large companies' participation in ATP to joint ventures
- Reinvest a percentage of revenues derived from awards back into ATP to fund additional high-risk research and help stabilize the program
- Identify the scientific or technological barrier to product development during deliberation on funding decisions and explain why the removal of that barrier will allow the technology to move forward without further government support
- Determine, where appropriate, whether additional private-sector, nonproprietary input would improve the ability of ATP's selection boards to assess funding requests
Hopefully, these recommendations will help ATP build on its past successes, such as The Auto Body Consortium, which teamed suppliers, universities and auto manufacturers to develop a suite of process-monitoring and control technologies that are cutting costs and improving quality throughout much of the U.S. auto industry; the development of an affordable manufacturing system that reduced production time to make large structural parts from composite materials; the development of the technology to significantly increase production and reduce the cost of materials made of nanosized particles; overcoming the technical barriers to develop fast, flexible prototype spindles for machine tools; and the development of prototype bridge beams made of lightweight, corrosion-resistant, carbon- and glass-reinforced polymer composites, which are expected to improve bridge durability and outlast conventional steel and concrete; to name but a few.