US funder moves beyond elite to bankroll ‘heartland’ innovation

NSF Regional Innovation Engines scheme is place-based push to secure US strength in key technologies

二月 7, 2023

The National Science Foundation, the prestigious US funder, is taking a step beyond funding only top-tier research universities towards “heartland America” and different kinds of institutions in higher education and beyond, embracing the “geography of innovation” in an aim to secure global strength.

In December, Congress passed an omnibus package that included a $9.5 billion (£7.9 billion) annual budget for the NSF – up from $8.8 billion the previous year, the largest dollar increase in the organisation’s 70-year history.

Some of that funding will enable the independent federal agency to progress its Regional Innovation Engines programme, authorised in last year’s CHIPS and Science Act, the legislation aimed at boosting US semiconductor research and manufacturing to counter Chinese power, and scientific research more generally.

The NSF bills the competitively awarded Engines programme as “investing in key areas of national interest and economic promise in every region”, providing regional coalitions of “academic institutions, non-profits, for-profit companies, and government entities, among others” with up to $160 million each over 10 years, supporting “use-inspired” research and translation to impact. 

The NSF aims to fund up to five Engines initially and to make announcements on those in the autumn. But hopes for a bigger Engines programme will rely on further funding.

This underscores a broader US shift to “place-based industrial policy” aimed at boosting struggling regions, also including the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge, where universities are central to winning bids. But with the BBBRC awards averaging under $50 million, the NSF Engines are seen as still more significant.

“Most often the nation’s – and the NSF’s – innovation activities have revolved around R&D investment into leading Research 1 universities,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank, who has advocated for using federal R&D funding to foster innovation economies beyond the “superstars” of Silicon Valley, Boston and New York, to increase the nation’s innovation capacity while addressing the social and political damage of growing regional inequality.

Now, he added, the NSF was endorsing “newer ideas that take seriously the geography of innovation” and the place of local innovation ecosystems involving “myriad local actors beyond those in the great universities”.

Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for technology, innovation and partnerships – a new directorate also authorised by the CHIPS and Science Act – said NSF leaders, Congress and administration shared the aim of “ensuring that we continue in the vanguard of competitiveness in key technology areas, from AI to quantum, to biotechnology, to semiconductors and microelectronics”.

“We see a real opportunity space to be able to tap into that talent in every location in the country,” Dr Gianchandani continued. “We’ve invested quite a bit on the coasts…But we need to think about the heartland of America, we need to think about rural communities.”

Fostering new technology and workforce capabilities, he said, would “require the deep engagement” of “all different kinds of institutions in higher education…four-year universities, R1 institutions, but also minority-serving institutions – some of them might be R1, some of them might not be – also community colleges, also institutions that are maybe up and coming”.

Dan Breznitz, Munk chair of innovation studies at the University of Toronto, fully supported fostering innovation economies in more regions.

But a key question, he said, was whether the NSF has, or should have, “the capacity to allocate resource not on the basis of the best and highest scientific research criteria” but with the aim of fostering regional growth.



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