By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
When the occasion calls for a cataloging of Tennessee’s R&D assets, two of the organizations at the top of the list are Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee (UT).
So, it was significant that the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based non-profit public policy organization, chose ORNL as the launchpad for the first in a series of conversations across the country on strategies to ensure that local economies benefit from their regional research assets.
The term assigned to the concept is stickiness.
“Putting some of what we are doing locally into that conversation at the national level is a good thing,” ORNL Director Thom Mason told us about the importance of the first event being here. His comments were echoed by Mark Muro, Brookings’ Senior Fellow and Policy Director for the Metropolitan Policy Program, in a blog post.
We talked with Mason during the recent “EERE Industry Day” that ORNL hosted with the U. S. Department of Industry. It occurred about a week after the invitation only, day-long Brookings discussion. The symbolism of the close scheduling of the two events was not lost on ORNL’s Director.
He noted that the “EERE Industry Day” was one example of how ORNL tries to ensure that entrepreneurs and established business owners are cognizant of the R&D that is occurring at ORNL. Those efforts are greatly enhanced by two ORNL platform technologies clusters – carbon fiber and additive manufacturing – that boast two world class “places” – the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility and the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.
“What does it take to make innovation ‘sticky’ – that is, locally commercialized,” Muro asked at the start of his blogpost? Later, he wrote that the inaugural event at ORNL “surfaced key elements of an emerging, distinctively American style of ‘bottom up’ regional practice that aims to both drive innovation and localize its downstream commercial benefits.”
In the case of ORNL, Mason simply said, “It’s what we’ve been doing . . . seeking industry partners and working with organizations like Innovation Valley.” He’s Board Chair of the latter public-private partnership.
Those who have interacted to any extent with ORNL’s Director know of his strong interest in history and its impact on the development of public policy. During our interview, Mason cited the Manhattan Project, rooted in Oak Ridge, and a report – Science – – The Endless Frontier – to provide context to the importance of the recent event as well as the Brookings work.
“Prior to World War II, there was not a substantial investment in federal R&D,” he said. In 1945, Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt’s Advisor for the Manhattan Project, wrote the report that “made the case,” in Mason’s words, for the significant post-war investment of public dollars in research.
“At the time, you did not have to worry about stickiness,” Mason said, noting that about 80 percent of the global domestic product was in the U.S. “It’s very different today. If the U.S. taxpayer invests in science and technology that then turns-up somewhere else, that’s not a very good return on investment.”
There is no question that the local region is home to some truly amazing assets in computing, neutron sciences, imaging microscopy, and materials science. And, increasingly ORNL is involved in a variety of multi-organizational and multi-state partnerships such as the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI).
Yet, Mason cites the growing ability of other countries to invest in building their own world class research facilities. “MDF is not that expensive (to replicate) in terms of equipment,” he says.
So, what will keep us ahead of other countries?
“It is the science behind (computing, neutron sciences, imaging microscopy, and materials science) that will allow us to stay ahead,” Mason says. “Other countries do not tend to drive things from fundamental science linked to applied research in a unified organization.”
Stickiness clearly matters, and it is significant that Brookings launched its nationwide series of conversations right here where there is a full understanding of how to leverage the region’s assets for long-term economic growth.