The National Science Foundation would get an extra $50 billion under a proposal from the Biden administration. The NSF would establish a technology directorate, and give out grants for advanced chip making, communications, and other technologies deemed crucial to American competitiveness. Biden also wants tens of billions for other research initiatives. North Carolina State University industrial and systems engineering professor Julie Swann joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk about how this might all work.
Tom Available: Ms. Swann, good to have you on.
Julie Swann: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be with you here today and talk about these critical industries and research infrastructure.
Tom Available: And you have been tasked to the CDC, you’ve looked at supply chains for the pandemic in general the things that have bedeviled the resilience of the United States. So first of all, tell us a little bit about what you learned in that experience with CDC.
Julie Swann: As you mentioned, I was on loan to the CDC during the H1N1 pandemic, back in 2009, when I spent a lot of time looking at supply chains. And we had shortages of personal protective equipment at that time, for example of masks, partly because many of them were produced overseas, and we didn’t have a large backup supply in the US. That kind of problem has continued to plague us across many different supply chains, from the ones for PPE, and masks and gloves and gowns, to ones associated with vaccine in all of the components that go into both vaccines and other types of bio manufactured products. And then of course, extending to semiconductor chips, many of which are made in other countries. So, you know, there really are a lot of areas where we’ve seen over the years that our supply chains are vulnerable to disruptions.
Tom Available: And if this money were to be appropriated, and it looks like at least some of it will be, this, I presume, would go to various agencies that make grants. Where are the areas that you feel research grants would have the most impact with respect to the whole resilience issue in the future?
Julie Swann: Yeah, there are lots of different areas where I think we’ll see increased funding and where I think funding is needed. I definitely think that the US needs to look really hard at the supply chains associated with pharmaceuticals and other medical products. You know, it’s not only vaccines and PPE. But there are other kinds of products that are at risk for various kinds of disruptions. So I think we’ll see some investment in that space, possibly some reshoring of manufacturing or some near shoring to make that system more secure. I think that we will see similar kinds of things with respect to semiconductor chips, where we’ll determine whether there are some parts of that that might be brought back to the US taking into consideration, you know, all of the different things that would be needed to make that happen. We’re also seeing a great interest in technology such as that discussed for the National Science Foundation. And there are so many different areas where the US needs to continue making investments. Quantum computing is one. Can you imagine if some countries around the world are the first ones to quantum computing, what kind of advantage that might give them over us. And so that is one where we need to continue making advances both in fundamental science and moving to the technology side. We see the same thing in communications as well, you know, we have seen that some of our networks are at risk. And so that’s an area where we need to shore up our capacity both on the technology and research side, as well as on the manufacturing side.
Tom Available: And just on that quantum computing idea. Of course, the fear is it could make all encryption obsolete overnight, and so forth. So it strikes me that not only would another nation have a head start in a race, so to speak, but they could also put concrete on the nations that don’t have it and keep them from getting out of the starting gate with the very quantum computing capability itself.
Julie Swann: That is a great analogy. You’re absolutely right. And so that’s why it’s even more crucial to make sure that the US is continuing to make investments in that. And this does require lots of different kinds of investments. I mean, there’s the investment in the infrastructure itself, the communication and the lines, and you know, all of these pieces, there’s the investment in the ideas and the scientists who are building those ideas. This also often involves partnerships with companies. IBM is one partner in the quantum computing space. And there are others, of course, all working together to really crack that nut so that the US will be able to move forward in that space.
Tom Available: We’re speaking with Julie Swann. She’s an engineering professor at North Carolina State University. And how does a given agency, how does even something as presumably expert across the board as the National Science Foundation, know where to best invest in what might have the best outcome? Because we are still a capitalistic society in that sense, and people eventually want things to pay off, even if they’re good for society anyway.
Julie Swann: Those are great questions. The National Science Foundation does have a great set of scientific leaders who are now part of the agency who came through the science themselves. They also have a lot of scientific advisors. And I can tell you one thing that I think is important is to invest in a portfolio of options. Sometimes you don’t know ahead of time, which one will pay off. So just as we saw for the vaccines, where we invested in multiple products, in case, you know, one was successful, and one was not the same thing needs to happen at the National Science Foundation and in other agencies. And some of these investments need to be risky, you don’t want every single investment to pay off, because that would mean that you’re not taking enough risks. So you just want some of them to pay off.
Tom Available: And I guess this all relates to kind of industrial and economic policy in that sense, because when you look at the semiconductor industry, which was largely started here, I mean, Silicon Valley is misnamed now, it’s really software valley, but it used to be Silicon Valley. And it’s what they were able to etch into silicon that really gave us the second industrial age, if you will. I had no idea how much of it had fled the United States and how little silicon is actually etched in Silicon Valley. But there’s a kind of a irony, because it takes a couple of billion dollars to build a normal semiconductor fab line. And it’s peopled with people that are, this is not blue collar work, it’s very highly skilled work, whether designing or making the chips. And yet, we want to put them in equipment that you can buy for $33 a month on your phone plan, or $172 a month on your car plan. So there’s huge capital, lowering prices, that’s a tough combination to try to rationalize.
Julie Swann: You are absolutely right, this is a really tough problem. And there are these competing tensions where some of these products can be expensive to make. There was also the aspect related to the environmental side and producing them in a way that’s sustainable and not violating any regulations that we might have. And as you said at low enough cost. And I have to say we have to find ways in our society that we invest in things that can also keep us secure. So one advantage of having some more of that manufacturing back within the US borders is that it might enable a greater security of that communication system. And we should be willing to pay a higher price for that greater communication. But there may be different mechanisms for doing so and thinking through how best to do that. So we have to invest both not only during wartime like a pandemic, but also during peacetime and find ways to make it sustainable.
Tom Available: And let me ask you a question from a different angle. A great deal of grant money now goes to academic institutions. And in this case, it would be well, all the technologies you mentioned. In your work as a professor on the ground level at a university at a well known one, high quality one, do you find that men and women are equally interested in these fields, semiconductor fab design, industrial systems, all of this communication technology? Because it sounds like a cliche, but the United States needs all of its brainpower on these things. And not just mostly men and a few, you know, women that also like STEM, kind of a ’80s or ’90s model.
Julie Swann: You’re right that we need all of that brainpower, not only both from men and women, but from all colors of skin and across groups that sometimes have been underrepresented in engineering. And what I find is that it’s not the interest that keeps people back. Sometimes it’s other kinds of barriers and getting involved early enough. And that things that have societal impact are often very attractive to people from a variety of backgrounds across different genders, different race ethnicities, different backgrounds, in other kinds of ways. We do have to give them the support that they need. And we have to start early enough. I mean, really, this focus on math, and science has to happen early enough so that people don’t get behind. And it starts with investments in preschool and elementary education, well before we get to high school and college, and then the high school and college is really important as well.
Tom Available: I was thinking third grade, but even earlier than that, when it gets to that kind of mindset oriented toward the language of mathematics, that’s probably crucial.
Julie Swann: That’s right. And it’s not just the language, sometimes it’s physical, you know, it’s the Lego blocks and all of these kinds of things that children with resources may grow up with and you know, children of either gender can play with, but giving their brains different kinds of puzzles to think through and getting them inspired by different kinds of things. So we do need to think about that whole spectrum to continue recruiting into science and technology fields across all of the best and brightest minds.
Tom Available: Julie Swann is an industrial and systems engineering professor at North Carolina State University. Thanks so much for joining me.
Julie Swann: Thank you very much for having me.
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