Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The National Science and Technology Foundation?

A proposal is being put in front of Congress that would reshape the National Science Foundation into the National Science and Technology Foundation.  The Senate bill is here, and the House equivalent bill is here.  The actual text of the Senate bill is here in pdf form.   In a nutshell, this "Endless Frontiers" bill (so named to echo the Vannevar Bush report that spurred the creation of the NSF in the first place) would do several things, including:
  • Create a Technology Directorate with its own advisory board (distinct from the National Science Board)
  • Would identify ten key technology areas (enumerated in the bill, initially (i) artificial intelligence and machine learning; (ii) high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware; (iii) quantum computing and information systems; (iv) robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing; (v) natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention; (vi) advanced communications technology; (vii) biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology; (viii) cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies; (ix) advanced energy; and (x) materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas)
  • Would have funds allocated by program managers who may use peer review in an advisory role (so, more like DOD than traditional NSF)
  • Invest $100B over 5 years, with the idea that the rest of NSF would also go up, but this new directorate would get the large bulk of the funding
This article at Science does a good job outlining all of this.  The argument is, basically, that the US is lagging in key areas and is not doing a good job translating basic science into technologies that ensure international primacy (with China being the chief perceived rival, though this is unstated in the bills of course).  If this came to pass, and it's a big "if", this could fundamentally alter the character and mission of the NSF.  Seeing bipartisan congressional enthusiasm for boosting funding to the NSF is encouraging, but I think there are real hazards in pushing funding even farther toward applications, particularly in a governance and funding-decision model that would look so different than traditional NSF.  

It's worth noting that people have been having these arguments for a long time.  Here is a 1980 (!) article from Science back when a "National Technology Foundation" proposal was pending before Congress, for exactly the same perceived reasons (poor translation of basic science into technology and business competitiveness, though the Soviets were presumably the rivals with whom people were concerned about competing).  The NSF has their own history that mentions this, and how this tension led to the creation of the modern Engineering Directorate within NSF.  

Interesting times.  Odds are this won't pass, but it's a sign of bipartisan concern about the US falling behind its technological rivals.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Yet more brief items

Between writing deadlines, battling with reviewer 3 (I kid, I kid), and trying to get set for the tentative beginnings of restarting on-campus research, it's been a busy time.  I really do hope to do more blogging soon (suggested topics are always appreciated), but for now, here are a few more brief items:
  • This expression of editorial concern about this paper was an unwelcome surprise.  Hopefully all will become clear.  Here is a statement by the quantum information science-related center at Delft.
  • I happened across this press release, pointing out that nVidia's new chip will contain 54 billion transistors (!) fabbed with a 7 nm process.  For reference, the "7 nm" there is a label describing particular fabrication processes using finFETs, and doesn't really correspond to a physical feature size of 7 nm.  I discussed this here before.  Still impressive.
  • There is a lot of talk about moving cutting-edge semiconductor fabrication plants back to the US.  Intel and parts of GlobalFoundries aside, a large fraction of high end chip volume is produced outside the US.  There have long been national security and intellectual property concerns about the overseas manufacturing of key technologies, and the US DOD has decided that bringing some of this capability back on-shore is safer and more secure.  I'm surprised it's taken this long, though the enormous capital cost in setting up a foundry explains why these things are often done by large consortia.  The pandemic has also shown that depending on overseas suppliers for just-in-time delivery of things may not be the smartest move.
  • Speaking of that, I can't help but wonder about the cycle of unintended consequences that we have in our economic choices.  I've ranted (way) before about how the way the stock market and corporate governance function these days has basically squeezed away most industrial basic research.  Those same attitudes gave us "just-in-time" manufacturing and somehow convinced generations of corporate management that simple things like warehouses and stockrooms were inherently bad.  "Why keep a stockroom around, when you can always order a M5 allen head bolt via the internet and get it shipped overnight from hundreds or thousands of miles away?" runs the argument, the same kind of bogus accounting that implies that the continued existence of a space in the Bell Labs parking lot used to cost Lucent $30K/yr.   So, companies got rid of inventory, got rid of local suppliers, and then were smacked hard by the double-whammy of a US-China trade war and a global pandemic.  Now we are being bombarded with breathless stories about how the pandemic and people working from home might mean the complete delocalization of work - a vision of people working from anywhere, especially places more financially sustainable than the Bay Area.  I'm all for telecommuting when it makes sense, and minimizing environmental impact, and affordable places to live.  That being said, it's hard not to feel like a truly extreme adoption of this idea is risky.  What if, heaven forbid, there's a big disruption to the communications grid, such as a Carrington Event?  Wouldn't that basically obliterate the ability of completely delocalized companies to function?  
  • To end on a much lighter note, these videos (1, 2, 3, 4) have been a positive product of the present circumstances, bringing enjoyment to millions.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Brief items

Apologies for the slowed frequency of posting.  Academic and research duties have been eating a lot of bandwidth.  Here are a few items that may be of interest:

  • This article about Shoucheng Zhang is informative, but at the same time very sad.  Any geopolitics aside, he was an intense, driven person who put enormous pressure on himself.  It says something about self-perception under depression that he was concerned that he was somehow not being recognized.  
  • This paper caught my eye.  If you want to see whether there is some dependence of electronic conduction on the relative directions of a material's crystal axes and the current, it makes sense to fabricate a series of devices oriented in different directions.  These authors take a single epitaxial film of a material (in this case the unconventional superconductor Sr2RuO4) and carve it into a radial array of differently oriented strips of material with measurement electrodes.   They find that there do seem to be "easy" and "hard" directions for transport in the normal state that don't have an obvious relationship to the crystal symmetry directions.  A similar approach was taken here in a cuprate superconductor.  
  • I like the idea of making characterization tools broadly available for low cost - it's great for the developing world and potentially for use in public secondary education.  This work shows plans for a readily producible optical microscope that can have digital imaging, motorized sample positioning, and focusing for a couple of hundred dollars.  Fancier than the foldscope, but still very cool.  Time to think more about how someone could make a $100 electron microscope....
  • Here is a nice review article from the beginning of the year about spin liquids.
  • I was going to point out this article about ultralow temperature nanoelectronics back in March, but the pandemic distracted me.  From grad school I have a history in this area, and the progress is nice to see.  The technical challenges of truly getting electrons cold are formidable.