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As technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning advance, agencies are partnering with top research universities and leveraging their existing relationships with foundations and outside organizations to secure more funding and fill a recruiting pipeline.

At the National Science Foundation’s 70th anniversary symposium on Feb. 6, Kavli Foundation President and CEO Robert Conn said advances in the physical and biological sciences were often the result of huge philanthropic investments.

"If you look back to American preeminence in astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology, you really go back to a philanthropist," he said at a panel on partnerships and national priorities. "You go back to founders of CalTech, and then Carnegie, who in 1904 provided $1 million to build a telescope on Mount Wilson, and then gave them a $15 million endowment," he said. "Transformative changes are possible through the partnering of philanthropy with our higher education system."

Part of the draw of private investment, Conn said, was that it often far exceeds what government agencies can offer, especially during tight financial times.

MIT’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite project, for example, "surveys where the planets that are the most likely candidates to support life will be in 20 years," Conn said. "In the downturn of 2008, NASA said, ‘We don’t have the money.’ MIT came to us and asked to bridge the gap, and we did … and two years later NASA came back, the satellite launched," he said. "There’s a case where philanthropy filled the gap when government had a difficulty."

At the same panel, Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar said federal researchers often face constraints about how they can share ideas.

"We have very concentrated areas, like at the National Labs, with 60,000 people, where they develop great ideas, but they literally have fences around them. To move [ideas] out the door, we can’t do it by ourselves. How do we build communities with other researchers?"

Dabbar cited the Human Genome Project as an example of collaboration.

"The initiative started at Lawrence Livermore, as an outgrowth of looking at nuclear radiation damage. From that, grew the ability to look at imaging and sequencing. It started off behind a fence, but [researchers] ultimately ended up working with [the University of California] Berkeley, the National Institutes of Health and others to get it done on a partnership basis," he said. "It’s turned into an area of genomics and an example that couldn’t have happened without a tremendous amount of across-the-board partnership."

Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology Walter Copan added at the panel that partnerships investing in foundational research could also provide a workaround for unforeseen barriers.

"Partnering with industry has allowed us to provide the greatest benefits and opportunities for the American people, the economy, and quality of life," said Copan, who is also director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The Stevenson-Wydler Act and others like it has allowed us to collaborate across sectors, but they were written well before the digital economy."

He cited a recent proposed rule that would encourage greater collaboration between small businesses and the federal sector as an example of a new legislative model that fosters innovation by streamlining regulations.

"It could create new opportunities for engagement with the private sector, Copan said. "We want to reduce barriers and create incentives for engagement."

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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