Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, told me that the Fuchs project is “an example” of what they are trying to achieve at NSF.
Fuchs is trying to prevent politics from working on the trial. He is determined to avoid the fate of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which became a political lightning rod and was shut down in 1995 at the behest of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia. “One of the mistakes OTA made was that it said what we should do,” he said. Instead, he said, “we will provide analytics that inform how different choices affect different outcomes. Policymakers are left to decide how to use the most important things.”
Policymaking involves choosing between appropriate goals such as strengthening national security, protecting the environment, creating good-wage jobs and reducing social inequality. The goals may be counterintuitive, as bringing lithium mining and refining to the United States would create jobs and strengthen supply chains, but could cause water and air pollution. But it is possible to create successful strategies. Members of the group Elsa Olivetti of MIT and Kate Whitefoot of Carnegie Mellon are exploring ways to help the environment and American jobs, such as the domestic development of alternative battery products and new ways to recycle essential minerals.
As an example of how technology evaluation can work, Mr. Fuchs said the Carnegie Mellon team helped develop a new way to prevent computer outages, which occurred during the pandemic and disrupted the production of cars and other products. The team found that consistency is a big part of the problem: some chips can only be made on one line at a plant. The group recommended that the government develop the same chip design, just as car manufacturers make many types of cars using the same chassis. This would allow the chips to be manufactured on many unique lines. Domestic and foreign chip makers could go along with the plan if some of the fabric lines were theirs, so as not to lose business to competitors.
One of Fuchs’ team, Rena Conti, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, is focusing on healthcare. This includes imported hormones that go into the birth control pills and birth control pills used by 30 million American women, as well as synthetic drugs made from India, China and elsewhere. His team is looking for technologies such as synthetic biology and advanced manufacturing that can help improve production, as well as additional testing and technical assistance in quality control to improve the reliability of ingredients that continue to be imported.
Conti said Fuchs excels at working across academic boundaries. Fuchs is a fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research although he was not an economist. “Economists can’t be understood by engineers and vice versa. They are helping us find a common language to solve common problems,” said Conti. Olivetti, a professor of materials science and engineering, agreed: “He has the ability to communicate with people in different ways. They create networks.”
If the pilot project that Fuchs is leading succeeds in demonstrating the power of knowledge sharing to boost America’s technological innovation, it will be worth the $4 million being spent.