Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Borrowed Thoughts on Research Funding

At the end of my previous post, I hinted that I have been thinking lately about funding of research and development activities, particularly government funding of basic research.  This thought was catalyzed by a recent article in Science, What's So Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?), an address to the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting by William H. Press.  Although it is a bit long and technical from an economic perspective, I think this is one of the best written and most logical statements for federal support of scientific research that I have ever read. The foundational idea, sustained by the evidence, is that scientific research is supported by the public both because it contributes to “intellectual richness” and has tangible economic benefits.  Is this changing?  Will this support continue?

Because I think it is important for everyone to understand the article’s arguments, I provide below an abridged version.  But I urge you to read the original; it is worth it (and it has figures).
  1. United States GDP/capita has increased exponentially for more than 130 years, and this country is among the leaders in R&D spending as a percentage of GDP (~3%).  But does R&D spending lead to wealth or does a nation’s wealth result in more R&D spending simply because it is available? Let’s take a closer look at the economics.
  2. Exponential GDP growth is due to a positive feedback mechanism (so say Nobel Prize winning economists).
  3. Only capital, including intellectual capital and technology, can produce exponential economic growth.
  4. A key concept to understanding the benefits of research is appropriability, which can be defined as how well returns accrue to investors.  That is, do investors in research get a payback for their invested money?  The answer for basic research is not very good.  While the returns can be substantial, because of modern dissemination of ideas these often do not come back to the original investor but are more globally distributed.
  5. Hence, incentive for private investment in basic research is diminished.  So, public investment must fulfill this role, and it generally does.
  6. Over the last 50 years, however, the US government’s 2/3 share (in the early 1960s) of research funding has decreased to 1/3 with the opposite seen for industry funding.  But this increased industry funding is more applied, and thus more appropriable, for faster return on investment.
  7. From 1990-2007, industry’s basic research spending was stagnant and this has been the case for government spending since 2003, in constant dollars.
  8. Basic research is not growing with the economy therefore the feedback mechanism (see #2 and #3) is broken; 10 years of neglect need to be reversed.  This will also lead to a global effect with no country willing to invest in basic research – the “tragedy of the commons” – because everyone will believe they can benefit from the work of others.  According to Press:
“The current situation is dangerous. Short-term actions in a time of budget crisis and financial austerity might become the triggers of long-term underinvestment in the ultimate fuel of economic growth, basic research in science.”
So, what is the solution to this problem?
  1.  National and state government policies must change to increase appropriability and return on investment in basic research.  One such approach may be university and other infrastructure-based research hubs that are designed to keep commercialization efforts more local and regional.
  2. History demonstrates that technical advances due to basic research are not rare events, but occur frequently, and with significant payoff, and this is intuitively understood by the public.  We, the public, need to convince our government, therefore, that patient, sustained, and consistent investment is required. 
It is only through education, outreach, and the democratic process that scientists and engineers, with the help of the public, can cause governments to act.

As Press states so eloquently:
“Through communication with the public, we must continue to provide the evidence that may justify those beliefs…as individuals, we must seize every opportunity to demonstrate that what we do is altruistic and idealistic and that it is also economically vital.  Our message is that science is a single, unified, long-term enterprise in which basic science discoveries, and research accomplishments of applied science and engineering, are things to be admired in their own right that also, often unpredictably, lead to better jobs and better lives, new products and new industries.”
Now who can argue with that?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Open Access (and Prof. Mostafa El-Sayed)

This is not exactly a “my dog ate my homework” excuse, but it is close.  I had intended to write about the events related to Georgia Tech’s Open Access Week closer to the time of their occurrence, but something else got in the way.

That something was my work in helping to organize and then attend the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) which was held in Atlanta Nov. 12-16. The theme of the meeting was “Building Chemical Bonds”, and it highlighted, through a wide variety of symposia, workshops, and events, the benefits of collaborative relationships between academia, industry and government.  While I spent a good portion of my time at the conference helping to support the IEN exhibit booth, I did have a chance to attend a wonderful 1.5 day symposium organized to celebrate the 80th birthday of nanotechnology luminary Prof. Mostafa El-Sayed (Georgia Tech).  Peppered with old photos and reminiscences of Prof. El-Sayed’s prolific career by colleagues, friends and former students, the symposium also highlighted the influence he has had on the field by the rich diversity of technical topics presented by the distinguished group of speakers including Mark Ratner, Chad Mirkin, Naomi Halas, Catherine Murphy, Jeff Zink, and Younan Xia, to name a few.  His technical leadership in nanoscale science, nanomedicine, and spectroscopy has resulted in his group’s more than 600 publications consistently among the most cited in chemistry. In addition, nearly every speaker commented on Prof. El-Sayed’s kindness and generous nature, and many of the shared photos depicted group holiday meals celebrated at the El-Sayed household.

This post is really about the Open Access Week celebrated at Georgia Tech the week of Oct. 21-25.  While typically centered around events that contribute to a discussion of journal publications and the growing movement to reduce the economic burdens for universities and individual researchers to mine their rich content, this year the Georgia Tech Library also partnered with the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology to highlight another aspect of open access, that of access to research resources.  The IEN is a natural fit for this conversation, as our open, shared user facilities are designed to foster exactly the same type of freedom of access to research infrastructure as is analogous to that of research results and publications.  In particular, through our Nano@Tech program, the Library and IEN co-hosted both an informational seminar and hands-on workshop on the topic of nanoHUB.  NanoHUB, a program of the NSF-funded Network for Computational Nanotechnology and run by Purdue University, is an “online gateway to simulation, research, collaboration and teaching in the nano-sciences” with nearly 300,000 world-wide users of the site.

Click on the map to see the growth in nanoHUB global users.
The seminar titled “Mythbusting Scientific Knowledge Transfer with Collaborative Research and Dissemination with Quantifiable Impact on Research and Education” was an overview of’s many offerings presented from the viewpoint of a user, Dr. Tim Fisher from Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering and the Birck Nanotechnology Center.  This was followed in the afternoon by a workshop facilitated by Dr. Tanya Faltens, where Georgia Tech researchers were given a guided tour of some of the site’s capabilities.  An article in Nature Nanotechnology, entitled "Learning and research in the cloud" by nanoHUB Director Gerhard Klimeck and colleagues that appeared just after Open Access Week, makes the point that this “cyberinfrasturcture” is an ideal environment to meld the dual academic roles of research and education.  As the article concludes:
“nanoHUB offers an easily accessible learning infrastructure that connects teachers and students with the research community. Such cyberenvironments can act as a translational agent that helps transfer new knowledge and methods to learners and researchers in ways that were not possible before.”
It occurred to me as I was finishing up this blog post that both items I have written about, the El-Sayed Symposium at SERMACS and nanoHUB, fundamentally illustrate the same point.  The advancement of science and technology is no longer a solitary pursuit, but rather a very social interaction with all parties dedicated to a common objective of advancing our knowledge of how the universe operates and improving the lot of humankind. This is a lofty goal which can be difficult to achieve in an age where rapid return on investment is a necessity for economic support of the research enterprise; but that is the subject of a different post.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Nano on the Shelf and in our Stomachs

Whenever I speak about nanotechnology, and the work that goes on at the IEN, to students or public audiences, I always discuss the surge in commercial products that contain some nanoscale component over the last decade or so.  I mention that one of my favorite websites, one that is very accessible to a lay person, is the Project on Emerging Technologies.  I have also written on this blog several times about this website and the hope and hype of nanotechnology commercialization efforts.  (As an aside, I was first introduced to the Project website when I came across the instructive and entertaining video “The Twinkie Guide to Nanotechnology” created by then Project director Andrew Maynard.  Check it out for an interesting introduction to this topic.)

One of the more useful aspects of the Project website is that it hosts a database of nanotechnology-related consumer products which had grown to >1300 items when it was last updated.  However, and I can sympathize as one who has recently become active again after a quiet period, the updates stopped in 2010.  Now, the news comes out of the Wilson Center and its new collaborator the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, that the wheels have started turning again on the Consumer Products Inventory (CPI).  The latest version of the inventory lists >1600 products, a 24% increase since 2010.  In addition to a new design that makes it easier to browse, search, and navigate the site, interested scientists and citizens can now register as crowdsource participants, contributing data about the products and the nanoparticle components they contain.  As described on the site:
“By crowdsourcing expertise our goal is to create a 'living' inventory for the exchange of accurate information on nano¬ enabled consumer products. Registered users are encouraged to submit relevant data pertaining to nanoparticle function, location, properties, potential exposure pathways, toxicity and life cycle assessment. Registered users can update product information and add new products.”
As in the past, the vast majority of products, nearly half of those in the inventory, are in the health and fitness category, although the largest percentage increase of products are in the food and beverage group.  Silver is still the most common nano-material, with titanium making a significant jump, nearly tripling in the number of products.  It should come as no surprise that there is a correlation here, with most of the food products containing nanoscale titanium (as titanium dioxide).  The purpose of this ingredient is for the whitening of products (without naming names) such as cream-filled sandwich cookies, cream cheese from a city in the Northeast, and breath mints that jiggle in your pocket.  I am not a food chemist (and do not even play one on TV), so I cannot offer expert advice here.  I will note that most of the producers of these products do not tout this nanotechnology ingredient in their marketing efforts.  You will also find, if you do a quick Google search, that there is a small cottage industry of conspiracy advocates that fears the worst.  On the other hand, numerous studies have found no harmful effects from typical exposure through food ingestion.

As in all aspects of commercial life, caveat emptor.  At least now there is an updated inventory if you want to see what nanotechnology-enhanced products there are to purchase, or not.

Last minute update:  Twinkies?  Yep, they were added to the inventory earlier this year as well.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


You remember the story of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, right?  An indolent man, Rip awakes after a 20 year slumber, thereby missing out on the Revolutionary War in upstate New York.  Well, this blog is somewhat like that.

Life size bronze of Rip Van Winkle sculpted by Richard Masloski, copyright 2000.

I have not written a blog post for Room at the Bottom for nearly 3 years.  I could go on and on about the reasons (indolence being one of them), but the end result is that time has passed while this accounting of my observations of nanotechnology and Georgia Tech has stood still.  While I am ready to begin my musings once again, I have the unenviable task of updating the site as well as all (okay, some) of what has transpired during my time away.

When I last wrote in this space, the operational unit for nanoscale fabrication and characterization at Georgia Tech was the Nanotechnology Research Center (NRC).  In early 2011, a new Interdisciplinary Research Institute (IRI) was created at Tech – the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN) - which consolidates much of the research in this area and several existing research centers into a common organization.  This IRI follows on the model set earlier by the Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB) and is the new paradigm for similar research topic-themed institutes at Georgia Tech. The founding Executive Director was Prof. Mark Allen, who recently announced his move to Penn; he has been replaced on an interim basis by Prof. Oliver Brand while a national search for a new IEN Director is conducted.

You can find out more about IEN at our new website, and continue to get timely updates and announcements through our Facebook page and LinkedIn group.  You can also come meet us in person at some upcoming conferences: IEEE Sensors (Baltimore, Nov. 4-6), SERMACS (Atlanta, Nov. 13-16), and IEEE MEMS (San Francisco, Jan. 26-30).  Of course, it is my intent that this blog will once again be a source for news, opinion, commentary, review, and gossip about items of interest to our community.  Stay tuned.