The House is Paying Closer Attention to Tech Transfer
As a first-term congressman from New Mexico, Ben Ray Lujan was searching for a way to make an impact as he toiled in the minority party of the House. It was the winter of 2010 and Washington wasn’t the only thing buried in a deep freeze. The economy was frozen, as well—stymied by a mortgage crisis, high unemployment and low expectations on Wall Street. Lujan, a Democrat, knew that Los Alamos National Laboratory, a crown jewel of U.S. innovation and the largest employer in his northern New Mexico district, could help solve America’s problem.
Los Alamos had long been world-renowned for its nuclear weapons work. It was the site of the legendary Manhattan Project, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. It also produced cutting-edge science—nuclear and more—that could have commercial applications. But there was a big problem. Federal policy makers, with a few exceptions, have never been very good at moving government-funded technology to the marketplace.
That’s why Lujan decided to launch the House Technology Transfer Caucus. In an interview with Innovation, Lujan said that he and caucus co-chair Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, wanted to focus congressional attention on the opportunities to commercialize research and development at the labs and universities.
“We have all these important technological assets but, sadly, we just haven’t churned all opportunities for manufacturing, development and commercialization that I think is important,” Lujan said.
The second-term congressman said entrepreneurs in his district helped him understand the amount of wasted potential. “As we talked to experts back in New Mexico—to the entrepreneurs who were responsible for some of the tech transfer success stories—we found that even though there was some good work taking place, we clearly were seeing some hurdles to technology transfer,” he said. “There’s a real lack of attention on the federal side, and from what I believe, not the strong commitment we can get to, especially as we talk about where the economy is right now in the United States.”
The caucus hasn’t produced any legislation yet, but it has had several briefings on Capitol Hill. A briefing in May 2010 billed as “Technology Transfer 101: Trends, Problems and New Ideas” featured Karina Edmonds, the Department of Energy’s technology transfer coordinator, and Duncan McBranch, deputy principal associate director for science, technology and engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The briefing served as a primer on the issues surrounding U.S. technology transfer policy—its definition, its impact on innovation and barriers to success.
In February, the caucus hosted another briefing, this one titled “Driving Jobs through Innovation: Fostering Science Entrepreneurship.” At the briefing, Lujan said the United States has unparalleled resources and needs to tap into them to create jobs. “We know what’s happening with the global economy today and it’s about competitiveness and the U.S. ability to retain its leadership,” Lujan said. “We talk a lot about this. It’s not just Democrats and Republicans. This is an American issue.”
The laboratory and educational systems aren’t being adequately exploited, he observed. The nation’s nuclear labs, in particular, should reach beyond their sometimes narrowly defined missions. “Even though their missions are very clear, they should be working more like universities where those physicists and scientists are working with entrepreneurs,” he said. “Entrepreneurs and scientists outside the labs should be able to take to advantage of those computing and modeling capacities to create this competitive edge for U.S. companies. We have the tools. There is no other national laboratory or university system like we have here. Combining that with the private sector to unleash this brain trust we have is something I get excited about.”
Lujan said he hopes the caucus can raise awareness of the extraordinary technologies the labs and American universities produce. He acknowledged that Congress has become more aware of America’s lagging global competitiveness. He pointed to the passage of the America Competes Act, a bill to improve American competitiveness that gained widespread, bipartisan support. The bill was first passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010. Lujan also said the reauthorization this year of the Small Business Innovation Research program was a step in the right direction. “This is something that’s being talked about a whole lot more,” he said.
Part of improving lab performance in the realm of tech transfer is making sure they track and measure their efforts. “With the national labs, you have to make sure that in their performance evaluations and contracting that their plans include technology transfer and commercialization metrics,” Lujan said. “As we talk about measuring the work of the national laboratories, that ability to measure progress has to be included as a strong incentive or requirement.”
The congressman also said the labs should be more flexible about allowing scientists to take leaves of absence to work in the private sector. “Even if the labs have a good technology transfer mission in their models, the entrepreneurial leave programs need to be strengthened,” he said.
Lujan applauded the DOE’s appointment of Karina Edmonds as technology transfer coordinator but lamented that aside from her salary, the tech transfer mission has no budget at DOE. The Energy Policy Act stipulated that DOE skim off the top of some of its agencies' budgets to pay for the office, but that hasn’t happened.
“We’re pushing for that,” Lujan said. “In 2005 as part of the Energy Policy Act a fund that was created but we still don’t see the funding. We need to increase the formulas as opposed to just talking about it and that’s something we’re trying to do.”
The technology transfer caucus has its work cut out for it. But Lujan said the overriding goal of private-sector economic development and job creation lends itself to bi-partisanship, even in an era when Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything.
“I know that there may be different approaches taken by Democrats and Republicans, but where common goals are shared, that’s what we need to see coming out of the national labs,” Lujan said. “This is an area where we can work together.”
Tom Michael is Innovation’s Washington bureau chief.