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Remarks at R&D Commercialization Forum, National Academy of Sciences

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at R&D Commercialization Forum
National Academy of Sciences
Washington, D.C.

Thank you all for coming today.

The people in front of me speak to the critical importance technology commercialization has for universities, businesses and policymakers.

And I hope the fruits of our discussions today will resonate beyond Washington.

Technology commercialization isn't just a matter of parochial interest for the stakeholders gathered here or folks on Capitol Hill.

It is a matter of paramount public interest.

How well America moves ideas out of the research lab and into the marketplace will determine whether we remain the most competitive and vibrant economy in the world.

And it will determine whether thousands, perhaps millions, of good jobs in high-growth industries like clean energy, biotechnology and IT will be created here in America for the benefit of our workers, or whether those jobs will migrate abroad.

As always, America’s universities will be a central player in this effort.

We depend on our academic institutions to help provide the continuous flow of new technologies and new ideas that propel our economy forward.

There is no question that the research carried out by the talented men and women at public and private institutions across America is second to none.

And I know that many of the university leaders in the audience have remarkably successful technology commercialization programs to capitalize on this research.

But when you look at the big picture, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that America’s innovation ecosystem isn't as efficient or as effective as it needs to be. Too often, we fail to:

  • Create the right incentives or allocate enough resources to generate new ideas;
  • Develop those ideas with focused research;
  • And turn them into businesses that can create good jobs.

As a result, we are losing our lead in promising industries and jeopardizing the future of our economy.

With rising competition from Europe and Asia, it has never been more important for America to reap the harvest of the research we sow.

Every stakeholder—from government to universities to business—has areas where we can do better. And I'm eager to learn of your ideas for how we can do that.

But before we get started, it’s useful to take a look at where we are and where we might need to go.

The first problem with our innovation system is urgent—but at least we have a pretty good idea how to fix it.

We’ve got to devote more resources to research and development—especially at the federal level.

As a share of GDP, American federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research—which was often funneled to our universities—has dropped by half since 1970.

Fortunately, President Obama has grasped the urgency of the problem.

Last year’s Recovery Act included $100 billion to support groundbreaking innovations in diverse fields, from healthcare IT and health research, to smart grids and high speed trains.

The president also announced a National Innovation Strategy—which among other things—called for doubling the budgets of agencies such as the National Science Foundation, so they could better support basic research at our nation's universities.

And just recently, the President’s 2011 budget—while freezing domestic discretionary spending overall—increases funding for civilian R&D by $3.7 billion or nearly 6 percent.

These are huge steps, but they can only be viewed as a beginning.

Because the second problem with our innovation system is that even in areas where we are allocating enough funding for R&D, we’re not doing a good enough job getting these ideas quickly into the marketplace.

With millions of Americans out of work, and our competitors aggressively chasing the same high-growth industries that we are, the United States cannot afford to merely fund research and say a prayer that some entrepreneur will commercialize it down the road.

In an era of limited resources, we've got to be targeted and strategic in our investments.

The people in this room need to help figure out how.

You might have noticed that lately in Washington, it’s been much harder to come up with concrete solutions.

It’s my sincere hope we buck that trend this morning.

Today, I hope we can answer a few questions.

How do we help new technologies and new companies across the valley of death?

How do universities using federal R&D dollars balance the sometimes competing demands of:

  • The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; and
  • Focusing on discoveries that have real potential to spawn new industries, new businesses and new jobs.

What is the best way to integrate universities into broader regional strategies for economic development?

And finally, how do we make it easier to connect entrepreneurs and other business builders with ideas coming out of university research labs?

In short, what's working, what isn’t, and how can the Commerce Department and the Obama administration help?

The answers to these questions can provide a real basis for the reform of federal and university research policies—reforms that deliver benefits on campus and jobs for Main Street.

Thank all of you again for coming, and I want to introduce you to Tom Kalil from the White House, who’ll help moderate our discussion today.