Sunday, December 19, 2010

Google's Innovation Pathway: Some Classical Ingredients

Everyone acknowledges the role of "serendipity" in the progress of science and technology, where the term means "making desirable discoveries by accident."  Picture it as Google co-founder Sergy Brin enjoying zero-gravity at left - a major breakthrough is often something you bump into while happily floating somewhere else.

Google has marched from a search algorithim developed by graduate students at Stanford to a search engine and into a dominant position in web advertizing and onward to a global information empire now encompassing the past as well as the future -- with a diplomacy wing being incorporated into Google Ideas.  In spite of Google's ubiquity in the global information cloud, was its success in fact an accident? 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Competing with China's solar export subsidies: Push-Pull disparity

As someone completely new to the subject, I’ve been reading up a bit on China’s government strategies regarding CleanTech exporters. These are my initial impressions and thoughts.

China’s solar and wind manufacturers benefit generally from conditions in China (low labor costs, faster and cheaper construction, expanding engineering base through universities), but also specifically from government aid targeted at their industry: land grants to companies, cheap state-supported loans (from government run banks), streamlined permitting, restrictions on rare-earth exports (raising costs for their foreign competitors), and currency manipulation (making their exports more economically favorable). Additionally, Chinese manufacturers have benefited from rapidly falling silicon prices. The Chinese market seems to be dominated by first generation solar technologies.

On one hand, the Chinese government seems to be doing everything right in promoting its manufacturing companies, which are growing rapidly (nearly doubling capacity each year). On the other hand, their practices may be hurting worldwide innovation.

The Mid-Term Effect on R&D Funding

Now what for science and technology funding?

The situation was already rather mixed.  Democrats failed to make a case for a major innovation boom based on a serious increase in public funding.  They left public spending in the twilight zone of the last-resort safety net, and now a repositioning will come too late. The Financial Times reported that the Republican victory killed flagship elements of Obama’s innovation policy for at least for the next two years. In “Corporate America welcomes power shift" (print title), the FT observes that cap-and-trade and net neutrality are gone, to be replaced by coal-and-oil and the cable cartels.  The same goes for defense conversion, which would have helped research-and-development funding of the kind conducted at universities. The New York Times' Frank Rich has pointed out that neither party offered a coherent storyline in which clear solutions follow well-described problems. In spite of its favorable stance towards science, the Obama Administration does not have a serious innovation policy that aims at supporting the creation of both knowledge and middle-class jobs. And neither party has a plan for supporting and expanding public universities.

Is this what people voted for? There is no popular support for the abandonment of renewable energy, or for the economic inefficiencies of the inequality boom, or for a recovery limited to the top end of the financial industry, or for a recovery based on the Fed reinflating asset bubbles, or for tuition increases at double to quadruple the consumer price index.  But the funding news is not good. The AAAS has a useful comment (scroll down to "Post-Election Outlook on Federal R&D Funding"). This table shows that energy research at the DOE would take a particular hit if the Republicans make good on their pledge.

Our ASU and CSPO colleague Dan Sarewitz has a good comment on the general issue, which is that funding levels get too much attention and social purposes not enough.
Boosting funds for basic research is also safer politics than actually tackling a national problem. . . . Doubling the NSF budget makes good politics. But what about good policy? Although few would question the value of a robust basic-science enterprise, we just don't know how marginal increases in basic-research funding affect a nation's capacity to solve social and economic problems. On the other hand, decades of research on the links between science and innovation in areas ranging from jet engines to medicines show that basic research best contributes to economic and social goals when targeted at areas that can directly benefit from additional fundamental knowledge.

If Congress wanted to allocate scarce new R&D resources wisely during a protracted period of budgetary austerity, it wouldn't adopt a doubling strategy, but would instead take a more surgical approach to set priorities. It would focus investments where links between science and application are well established, to deliver short- to medium-term benefits. Alternative energy, for example, offers many technological options where basic research can improve performance.
Sarewitz is here pitching "Pasteur's Quadrant" in vital areas rather than basic research. I think he hammers basic research mistakenly at the end ("I know that such an approach would be fiercely opposed by the leading voices of the scientific community, who will never abandon the long-falsified belief that basic research is most valuable to society as a bottom-up enterprise driven only by inherent scientific interest.")  But I share his distress at the refusal of politicians -- and science policy leaders -- to articulate social goals and then fund R&D that addresses them.

The U.S. is the only major power where socially-beneficial tech development is hamstrung by a deep political phobia about industrial policy.  Our lunch is being eaten in solar energy and other domains by the country with the most systematic industrial policy in the world - China.  This is a bad time to push for science policy rooted in social development -- something only public agencies can do.  But it is also even more urgent now than it was when Obama was elected two years ago.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Glowing trees, keeping the streets safe

"Can street lights be replaced by trees? Taiwanese scientists believe that they can using gold nanoparticles to induce luminescence in leaves." (

Far out!  The first mental image this conjures up for me is pretty spectacular. Luminescent, tree lined suburban streets. But, the mental image that follows includes confused lightning bugs, trees in continual photosynthensis and other bizarre consequences for the entire tree ecosystem. Plus, what does this mean for backyard astronomers?  Would it confuse airplane pilots?  I'd like to see this trees-as-streetlights idea explored in a sci fi film, complete with stunning visual effects.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Missing Moonshots

I've been wanting an energy moonshot for years, so it was a real pleasure to see Tom Friedman using his New York Times column this morning to say that other people have moonshots so why don't we?  Of course it's China he's referring to (that's Tianjin's high-speed rail station at left, sometime next year).  Friedman identifies the electric car industry as a moonshot the US needs to have.  The twist is that it would be a joint moonshot between the US and China.  This would involve levels of cooperation and information sharing that the world hasn't seen before. It would include the sharing of intellectual property at early stages of development.

The U.S. is internally divided about intellectual property.  The business community generally wants uncrackable IP, in large part because empires have been built on secret formula that can't be imitated and made more cheaply in a process that undermines the originator's market. Think Microsoft DOS and Windows, Google's page rank algorithms, Apple, Coca-Cola, and so on. These companies support limited forms of "open innovation," largely where they help build their own product ecosystem.  On the other hand, everyone knows that various firms competing for control of the best (and uninfringable) IP isn't nearly enough.  Bill Gates, leading venture capitalist John Doerr, and others recently called for a tripling in federal funding for energy research.  And yet Doerr sees development largely as a Darwinist competition for the fittest technology among a large number of firms, and in a competitive environment firms naturally rely on trade secrets, undisclosed licenses of patents, and every kind of leveraging of their IP. Top officials sometimes call for the suspension of IP in strategic or early-stage areas, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu did early in his term.  How does this square with maximum commercial competition that generally seeks exclusive rights?

China now has a huge advantage over the U.S. in the sheer scale of public funding. I would argue it has also an imagination advantage as well -- the scale of its vision for new infrastructure and public devices outstrips anything now seen in the West. I believe it has a third advantage as well: the creation of massive de facto patent pools for the sake of collective goals that are simultaneously social and economic. The sheer scale of this coordination is necessary given the size of the challenge, and yet it is currently unimaginable in the United States. In spite of our faltering recovery, and the simply uncompetitive state of much of our infrastructure, American leaders seem to feel little urgency.  The U.S. is not now leading the energy revolution, and unless we face reality and adapt our IP practices to support massively multi-user collaboration systems, we may soon not qualify as partners.

For concrete examples of next generation IP and technology transfer practices, see in particular the Gerald Barnett and Carol Mimura presentations posted on our Lyon Workshop page.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nano for gamers

There's a new kid on the nano education block - 'NanoMission' is a new science-based action-adventure video game designed to teach nano concepts and application areas.  From the game's website, "The game's plot is to save the world from destruction by Dr.Nevil and his army of nano-machines and nano-materials, whilst the player stealthily learns about real world nanotechnology. The game hero (player) supported by Dr. Goodlove and his assistants use nano-imaging, create nano-machines, develop nano-materials, and utilise an extraordinary shrinking machine to shrink the player to the nanoscale to stop Dr. Nevil and save the world."

Sounds pretty fun.  Not sure if a stereotyped professor (balding Caucasian man with white hair and beard) is the best way to inspire the gaming generation to think about a career in nano, as is the game's goal, but at least they traded the lab coat for a more modern look - latex gloves.

The developer, PlayGen, is working with a team of scientists to be sure to get the science right, including 'realistic physics' in the game environment, but probably more important from a gamer's point of view, the quality of the visual effects and interface is supposed to be up to the standards of current commercial games.  The company aims to make the game free to all high schools and colleges - definitely a plus, although wouldn't it be great to see a science-based action-adventure game take off in popularity in its own right?

You can download some of the game modules from the website,  If you check them out leave a comment here about what you think.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Much Has Changed for Science under Obama?

President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters who focus on foreign policy or the economy by continuing many of the practices of the Bush administration with which he had promised to break.  Science policy has seemed like an obvious exception, in which the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, both respects science and is willing to pay for it.  For example, in a keynote address to the European Research Council last year, AAAS president Alan Leshner claimed that American science "is back," and that the US will again be a reliable research partner for the rest of the world.

But there have been warning signs as well, including mixed signals on renewable energy research (as in boosting nuclear and offshore drilling at the same time).  In the past several days, two stories have claimed that scientific data and argument remain at the mercy of politics and message control.  A piece at the Huffington Post notes that the new rules to promote "scientific integrity throughout the executive branch" are a year late, and that a George Washington University survey found that "most government scientists interviewed did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration." 

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times ran a long article called "Scientists Expected the Obama Administration to be Friendler."  It claimed that many "Scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out," and offered a number of examples.

The conflict between the open circulation of data and message control has been on parade for weeks in the BP gulf oil disaster.  UC Santa Barbara scientist Ira Leifer, a member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group, has reported on the difficulty his group has had getting access from BP to reliable data on oil flow, and on the contrast between BP's repeatedly inaccurate claims and their own findings. 

Open access is crucial for both the assessment of social impacts and the advancement of research itself.  Since the Obama administration has suffered enormous damage from its association with the BP spill, it should step up with rules protecting scientific integrity and enforce a much higher standard for access than we have seen in recent years.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Moonshot Sentiments

Most people have thought I am a little nuts for wanting a moonshot on renewable energy research and development in the U.S. Nuts or not, the idea is for a flood of money on the scale created by John F. Kennedy's ten-year goal of a moon landing by the end of the 1960s. The current version could be an order-of-magnitude increase over a 2-3 year period for the full range of renewable energy research -- from say $300 million for photovoltaics in the current year, according to our forthcoming report, to $3 billion by 2013. By comparison, the full cost of the Apollo mission was recently estimated to be $170 billion (in 2005 dollars), or about $10-15 billion per year - around 50 times greater than photovoltaic research today.

The moonshot concept means much more money, and also more than money. It means infrastructural development, government procurement, patent pooling, and strong anti-trust enforcement to assure multiple sources for various energy components.

The energy moonshot would need to do many things that the Apollo moonshot did not. It would need to imagine multiple technology pathways, interact constantly with social demand, imagine future needs in an enriched sociocultural context, and be constructed bottom-up rather than top down.  In these ways, it would need to be radically different from the Apollo mission.

A moonshot is the opposite of the incrementalism that is plaguing renewable energy research.  We have long been getting small annual increases that neither accelerate research breakthroughs nor create interest among private investors.  Energy R&D has also been plagued by political instability, as can be seen in this graphic from the Dooley DOE report linked above.

Oil price spikes in the 1970s lead to a spike in energy R&D, which then collapsed almost as quickly.  Direct energy research has been a pitiful also-ran ever since.

Happily, commentators are increasingly fed up with this pattern.  They are explicitly targeting instability and incrementalism as huge problems for energy progress. An organization of technology heavyweights, led by Microsoft's Bill Gates, has called for an immediate tripling of energy research to $16 billion per year (over all energy categories).  In the introductory video clip for their American Innovation Energy Council, John Doerr notes that Americans spend more money on potato chips than they spend on energy research.  In his own clip, he goes on to note that only 4 of the 30 leading companies in a few key energy sectors are in the U.S.  The clip is pitched to scare policymakers into better funding with the prospect of U.S. economic decline in what Doerr calls the most important market of the 21st century.

And Bill Gates: "we're missing the basic innovation that would give us this whole new way of making energy." 

Gates also stresses the need to draw in about ten times more bright minds into the research, which is "fun work."

In a similar vein, Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog recently had a particularly good post on the funding problem. It caught my attention because it linked energy breakthroughs back to quantum dots, a science domain dear to my heart. But Revkin carries on with a series of links and comments from various analysts on this theme:
One key to a sustained national  energy quest, is greatly boosting direct federal support for basic research in relevant sciences. For decades, there’s been  bipartisan disinterest in such a push. Current investment in this area is so modest that just  a 2 cent rise in the federal gas tax would triple the activity.
 Many useful arguments follow on the dangers of instability and incrementalism alike.

It's good that these arguments for moonshot funding are increasingly visible. Real funding change is going to take an outside catalyst greater than even the BP Gulf oil disaster has been so far - some major triggering event.  The history is clear on this: Apollo is the son of Sputnik.  The Soviet's satellite success spawned NASA as an agency and then its moonshot out of a sense of a Cold War military urgency. Sputnik had a similarly dramatic effect on US education.  What kind of 2x4 upside the head will focus our attention this time?

The top picture is of Buzz Aldrin setting up a Solar Wind Collector on the moon.   It's time for the follow up.