The Case for Federal R&D Investment – 3 Success Stories

Government innovators face a unique set of challenges when exploring new ways to deliver on their agency’s mission. Creative thinkers can be hesitant to introduce challenging ideas in a culture that too often rewards the status quo and lacks clear avenues for communicating ingenuity up to leadership. Institutional oversight, risk aversion, and authority limitations help government entities run reliably (most of the time…), but these realities inhibit their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions or dedicate funding to long-term research & development efforts (R&D). That being said, it’s not impossible to strike a balance between traditional governance and entrepreneurial curiosity. Agencies like the Department of Defense and NASA have a long, well-documented history of driving green-field R&D that has provided tremendous economic and social benefits to citizens. In fact the Congressional Budget Office reported that the federal government invested $55 billion in R&D unrelated to national defense in 2012. In these non-classified settings, government agencies have begun to embrace an open and collaborative approach to innovation. For example, an agency might award grants to universities pursuing applied chemistry research or sponsor tech transfer between a private firm and federal scientists in a government lab.

Today’s top areas of federal nondefense R&D investment include healthcare, space science, technology, energy, and the environment. To highlight some recent success stories, here are 3 of the most innovative federal R&D programs:

 

  1. Advanced Manufacturing Partnership -- $2.2 Billion FY13

President Obama chartered this interdisciplinary consortium in 2011 to “enhance America’s global competitiveness” in next generation manufacturing areas like robotics, sustainable industry and supply chain innovation. The National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy, NASA and a cadre of Academic thought leaders make up a portion of AMP’s diverse membership. To prioritize areas of investment, AMP evaluates opportunities against criteria such as leveragability across industry sectors and encouraging American workforce demographics.

  1. Advanced Research Project Agency - Energy (ARPA – E) – $265 Million FY13

Born out of the success of DARPA, this Department of Energy venture takes a rapid, iterative approach to modernizing energy production and consumption. Current priority areas include improving energy storage – something that often blocks the critical path to mobile device innovation – and converting natural gas to transportation fuel. ARPA – E also shows a commitment to delivering lab research to consumers through its Tech-to-Market program (which helps explain how the agency parlayed $70 million of initial investment into $450 million of private sector follow on last year.)

3.Networking and Information Technology Research & Development Program (NITRD) -- $1.1 Billion FY13

This program brings together the National Science Foundation, NIH, DARPA, NIST and other heavy hitters you’d expect to be tackling today’s highest profile buzzword – Big Data. About half of NITRD’s projects go to foundational research like data management, mining and machine learning to uncover tactics of broad applicability across government data centers. They also dedicate funding to the development of more sophisticated applications, algorithms and cyber infrastructure necessary to support domain-specific data challenges (i.e. hurricane prediction modeling at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). This two-pronged approach brings welcomed sensibility and a real chance of success to a discipline that has seen too many well-intentioned working groups come and go as of late.

 

What other federal R&D programs have you seen creating impact lately? Where other areas of R&D investment should government innovators prioritize?