S&T and Innovation Policy in the United States: an Interview with Karl Hess

bridges vol. 19, October 2008 / Feature Article

By Caroline Adenberger

Dr. Karl Hess

In 2006, President George W. Bush appointed Austrian-born Physicist and Mathematician Karl Hess to the National Science Board (NSB ) for a term that recently ended, on May 10, 2008. The NSB provides oversight for, and establishes the policies of, the National Science Foundation (NSF ), an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..."

With an annual budget of about $6.06 billion, NSF is the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

Karl Hess' appointment to the NSB in 2006 was made after President Bush announced support for Nanostructure Science and Technology as well as Supercomputing Applications. Hess, who holds a PhD in Physics/Mathematics from the University of Vienna, has been a member of the faculty at the University of Vienna, Austria (Applied Physics) and since 1977 of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics). His research interests encompass solid state physics, solid state electronics, nano-science and technology, supercomputing applications, nano-structure simulation and, most recently, quantum optics, quantum information and quantum computing.

bridges recently had the opportunity to speak with Karl Hess and his viewpoints on US innovation and S&T policy.

bridges:    For a long time, the US innovation system has been considered by many as the innovation system of the world. Looking at it today, where do you see its strengths and weaknesses?

Hess:    The US innovation system is still the innovation system of the world. It derives its standing from the collective work of government funding (through NSF, NIH, DOD, and other institutions), state support, industrial support, as well as support by private foundations and donors. This mega-support has fostered great collaborations between universities, industry, government laboratories, and private Institutes, as well as a "will" and positive attitude toward innovation that serves the US people. There has been a weakening of the system by the demise of some great industrial research institutions (such as Bell Laboratories), and there also exists a need to strengthen pre-college education in the STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics).

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:    In your opinion, what kind of role should the US (or any) government play when it comes to innovation and competitiveness of a country?

Hess:    Foster education; particularly STEM education, on all levels. Any government should support and foster research and research collaborations with Industry in all areas that serve the nation. Nowadays we need a special effort for energy-related technology. It is energy, clean energy, that is needed most.

bridges:    In the report Science & Technology for America's Progress: Ensuring the Best Presidential Appointments in the New Administration released by the NAS last month, the expert panel urges the next president to nominate immediately after the election an "Assistant to the President for Science and Technology," who would also serve as the director of OSTP. The director position should be cabinet-level with an office in the Old Executive Building. Compared to the current situation, what role should the science advisor (or assistant) to the next president play?

Hess:    The science advisor to the next president needs to play a very prominent role in the area of innovating energy-related technologies. This will take cabinet-level input because of the following problems: There is a lack of education among the public about how "clean" and safe future energy sources can actually be. There exists a basic and unshakeable law of physics, the second law of thermodynamics. In simple terms, this law states that we can not live without creating "entropy," which means in turn that we can not live without changing the environment. The lack of understanding of this fact has impeded the progress toward new sources of energy (or toward the use of known sources such as nuclear energy) and still impedes this progress. On the other side, we have the problem that the wealthiest industrial efforts in the area of energy technology are specialized in one field, the oil field. These two diametrically opposed sides have formed a "symbiosis" that prevents large-scale progress. I do not think that a solution can be found by the government cheering but otherwise "getting out of the way." Solutions must be offered by involving the great institutions of science and engineering, the NAS, NAE, and by forming a collective movement of funding agencies and Industry.

bridges:    You are an innovator yourself - having built your first microphone at age eight. What needs to be done in K-12 to ensure that more US children develop interests for (a career in) S&T and engineering?

Hess:    The teachers need first to be educated themselves about the great progress technology has made. A DVD still works on the principle that Edison used for his phonograph. However, there is a quantum leap of refinement in using lasers to write and read the much finer structure of DVD's. I do not think children would touch DVD's with peanut butter-covered fingers if they knew about that fine structure. How many teachers have shown this structure to their students by use of a microscope? How many teachers have shown them the fine structure on a cell phone chip and explained the lithography that made the chip? We need to create a resource for teachers that gives them materials to demonstrate and explain the enormous progress in technology, starting in kindergarten and weaving a net that fosters the interest to the college level and beyond. And yes, building things is important. It doesn't have to start immediately with a sophisticated robot.  

bridges:    After your postdoc at the University of Illinois in 1973-1974, you went back to Vienna for a three-year period to work as an assistant professor and lecturer at the University of Vienna. However, in 1977, when the University of Illinois offered you a visiting associate professorship, you accepted. What were the main reasons for you to leave Austria and/or Austrian academia?

Hess:    Let me first say that I will be indebted to Austria forever for a great education. The Austrian gymnasium (college-oriented high school) was and is unique. In the Bundes-Gymnasium Baden, I had 15 teachers, 13 of them had a Ph.D. The education I received there was for life, and has guided me ever since. I left Austria because of the great opportunity to work at the University of Illinois with John Bardeen (inventor of the transistor and two-time Nobel Laureate) and his associates C.T. Sah (CMOS patent) and Nick Holonyak (light emitting diode). What the Bundes-Gymnasium Baden did for me in high school education, they did for me in postgraduate education. At that time there were no opportunities in Austria in the area that interested me most (advanced simulation and modeling of electronic transport in semiconductors and semiconductor devices). Now Vienna has Siegfried Selberherr and Zuerich has Wolfgang Fichtner (Austrian-born) both pioneers and grandmasters of this area. If they had been available then, I might have stayed in Europe.

bridges:    Today, however, it seems like the US has lost some of its former attractiveness for foreign students, scholars, and researchers. What are your recommendations to restore the US role as the prime destination for the international scientific community?

Hess:    I think the US is still very attractive. The pre-9/11 openness certainly helped and should be re-established some day.

bridges:    You once said in an interview that your expertise in semiconductor research caught the attention of the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), which assigned you to confidential military research. Your work with NRL, as well as your consequent research for the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Office, was invaluable in shaping your future research interests at that time. How would you describe the situation and the role of government-funded research today?

Hess:    The staff that administered the scientific support of the Department of Defense was absolutely superb at the time I entered the US. They emerged from the heydays of nuclear research and the mission to the moon. They knew what the important research areas were, they knew and supported the best scientists from all over the world, and they could be confident about a high level of continuous funding. They also could rely on the researchers of the great industrial laboratories such as IBM's Watson Research Lab and Bell Laboratories to show great interest and to help foster important research applications at universities. Things on the "hardware" side had already started to crumble, however, back in the '80s. The Austrian Dr. Adler, at that time director of the Zenith research laboratories, told me one day that the CEO of Zenith had asked him the question: "Why would a TV company like Zenith need any research at all? Everything is known in the TV area anyway." I wonder what this man, who probably made millions of dollars in salary and bonuses, would say to today's market featuring flat screens and digital technology? The demise of Bell Laboratories is probably just another consequence of such thinking. A new wave is needed here, and I think it will come related to energy technology.

bridges:    You worked for over 20 years at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois.  Founded in 1984, this is an interdisciplinary science center that combines physical and biological research interests. Based upon your experiences at Beckman, what creates the "right" environment to foster innovation and stimulate new research interests across disciplinary borders?

Hess:    Yes, and I chaired a committee that developed the proposal that was presented to Dr. Beckman and that he funded starting with a $40 million donation. Here we have all the US innovation forces at work. A private donor willing to support great ideas, a governor [Thompson] and state legislature to back this up with recurring funds, federal funding agencies willing to go with new ideas, a university administration with vision and brave enough to go into uncharted territory, and last but not least a faculty who came up with concrete ideas. The concreteness of ideas and the knowledge of the basic elements are very important, as Bardeen explained to me with the example of the transistor invention. They knew at Bell Labs that solids offered the possibility of creating very small structures because of their high density, and therefore should replace the vacuum tubes. This knowledge led to the invention of the transistor and finally to microchips with millions of transistors on them. Our administration and faculty in Illinois knew that the bio-world and the silicon-world could be advantageously merged with new types of research in nanotechnology, human computer interactions, and medical imaging, to name a few topics. We also had a unifying element for these diverse research areas: the super computer.

bridges:    Some Washington Think Tanks propose the creation of a "National Innovation Foundation." What do you think about creating such new institutional forms for doing technology policy?

Hess:    I do agree that innovation can to some extent be "willed." I also think that it is important to have a variety of funding agencies. If they could attract great minds, as we had them during and after going to the moon, and if they had a concrete area such as energy technology, then they would likely be successful. If they just group themselves around the word innovation, which is much too general to lead to concrete results, success is less likely. If you would ask 100 researchers whether their research is innovative, you would receive the answer "yes" from each of them. If they would rate their proposals (without knowing where these proposals are from) they would find at best 10 percent that are innovative.

bridges:    Are the US innovation policy instruments still up-to-date in terms of efficiency and efficacy in light of today's internationalization of S&T?

Hess:    The NSB discussed this topic at length and came up with great ideas of how to strengthen innovation policy for the NSF. The report "R&D: Essential Foundations for US Competitiveness in a Global Economy " makes the
following recommendations:

   1.  Based on past experience, basic research can be expected to be a major driver in the future for innovations that result in new industries and new jobs, and that will enhance the Nation's global competitiveness.

Recommendation: The Federal Government should take action to enhance the level of funding for, and the transformational nature of, basic research.

   2. The decrease in industrial-based basic research may result in a decreasing level of interactions between industry and academic research and teaching. In addition, changes in some industries' policies related to the management of patent portfolios and to publishing peer-reviewed journal articles are likely limiting public awareness of some innovation. It is
unknown how much, if any, basic research in industry results in innovations that remain company-proprietary, or that could beneficially influence the directions of any basic research.

Recommendation: Industry, government, the academic sector, and professional organizations should take action to encourage greater intellectual interchange between industry and academia. Industry researchers should also be encouraged to participate as authors and reviewers for articles in open, peer-reviewed publications.

   3. In the area of high technology manufacturing of products and services, globalization has often resulted in "value flows" across several nations before the end user acquires the device or service. Current trade measurements monitor the flow of components and products, but do not track at present all of these value flows. New metrics would be valuable in order to accurately attribute where value is added and, therefore, where intellectual capital is created and skilled labor is employed. Basic research is crucial to advancing science and engineering and creating intellectual capital in the United States, and for the US to continue to add value and to provide leadership in the global marketplace.

: New data are critically needed to track the implications for the US economy of the globalization of manufacturing and services in high technology industries, and this need should be addressed expeditiously by relevant Federal agencies.

bridges:    Looking specifically at the business enterprise sector with its increasingly open innovation approaches: What kind of policy answers are needed on a national / global level in your opinion?

Hess:    The business enterprise sector has been and is extremely successful, as witnessed by the global importance of Microsoft, Intel, and many other companies. I do think that a special effort, a moon-type project is needed now in energy technology. It also would be beneficial to put some CEO's on notice; like the one at Zenith in the '80s mentioned previously.  

bridges:    In your opinion, how important is the participation of the United States in large international research projects and in access to such large international research infrastructure?

Hess:    Obviously, the US needs to participate in large international projects such as those demanded by high energy physics. These projects are too esoteric and too expensive to be performed by any single nation.

bridges:    Collaboration vs. Competition: Where would you draw the fine line between knowledge protection and knowledge dissemination?

Hess:    I always felt that science can only have one master and that we take an oath to this master in Austria when the line "ut magis magisque veritas propagetur" is read to Ph.D. candidates and they respond with "spondeo." I always tried to live up to this oath. However, I am keenly aware that financial considerations are very important. After this oath, we take a job: for money and not only for the truth.

bridges:    What top-priority measures would you recommend to boost the productivity and innovation in the US economy now?

Hess:    I think the problems in the US are mainly related to a better STEM education in high schools; not necessarily to include more advanced topics, just better selection, presentation, and control of student understanding. On the research side, we need a moon project for energy technology.


The views expressed in the above interview are the personal views of the interviewee and do not reflect official views of the National Science Board (NSB).