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Senator Chris Coons on National Labs, Innovation, and ALS Print

senator coonsIn January, Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), at right in photo at the ALS, unveiled a bill in the Senate designed to modernize national labs and spur innovation:

“In this century of rapid change, America's best competitive advantage remains our capacity to innovate… What we are doing is modernizing the labs for the 21st Century, so that ideas developed in the lab can most effectively become innovations in the marketplace.”

Read the full text of his speech below, with references to the ALS, or watch the video where the ALS is called out at 8.34.





As delivered on the Senate Floor on January 29, 2014

Mr. President, I rise today to speak about a bill introduced today, a bipartisan bill, a bill that will strengthen America's innovation economy.

Over the last 60 years, our national laboratories have served as leading centers of research and discovery in America.

Today, in fact, we have 17 DOE labs charged with three broad research missions – science, energy, and national security. And although they've grown and changed since their founding to encompass much broader ranges of work and are successful in carrying out their primary missions, the labs are not fully optimized to take part in today's innovation culture.

That's a problem; because in this century of rapid change America's best competitive advantage remains our capacity to innovate.

So over the coming months I'll be talking about a few things that Congress can do in a bipartisan way to streamline and jump-start our nation's hubs of discovery so that we can thrive as a 21st Century innovation economy.

At the top level, it will mean working together to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, which would reaffirm our commitment to the robust national strategy for science and technology programs that will continue to be a critical underpinning of America's prosperity.

One part of how that can be achieved is how our national labs operate, and a bill that will make our national labs operate more effectively has been introduced today by Senator Rubio of Florida and myself, and it's the America INNOVATES Act.

Already, our labs have incubated many groundbreaking innovations over their long and storied history. Their research has led to breakthroughs from, for example in the health care field, new Melanoma and HIV/AIDS treatments, to in the national security field, special I.E.D. detonators that have saved the lives of our troops in combat.

That research is critical because although the private sector will continue to be a key source of investment and innovation, the federal government has and will continue to play a central role in advancing basic science, research, and innovation as well.

Why is that? Private markets historically speaking tend to underinvest in R&D relative to the potential benefits to society, and this is especially true where basic science is most relevant and it's particularly true in the energy sector.

But if there's a problem I've heard about since coming to Congress, in this field, it's that too often the great work of scientists at our national laboratories just doesn’t get translated to the marketplace – that we as a nation, as a people don't benefit from the remarkable discoveries and inventions being made in our 17 national labs.

Right now too much groundbreaking science and too many innovative ideas never leave the walls of our national labs, squandering enormous potential for our people, our country, and the commercial marketplace.

So in this bill today, introduced with Senator Rubio of Florida, we continue to support our labs' core missions. We're not proposing anything drastic. What we are doing instead is modernizing the labs for the 21st Century, so that ideas developed in the lab can most effectively become innovations in the marketplace.

Fortunately, we need only look to the labs themselves for inspiration on how to do this.

So we make two broad proposals.

First, we're integrating the management of the Department of Energy's science and energy programs to improve linkages between basic and applied science. This will allow the early stages of research and development to be translated more efficiently and it's something that Department of Energy Secretary Moniz has signaled he supports and is going to move forward with.

Second, we're giving the national labs more power to work with the private sector, to ensure that more scientific discoveries turn into commercial breakthroughs.

Together these two steps would allow us to streamline the labs' work so it can more quickly and effectively translate into the transformative innovations that can create jobs and grow our economy.

Now to explain what our proposals actually might achieve, let me walk through what is broadly known as the innovation pipeline, which shows how basic science research ultimately becomes a deployed world-changing innovation.

First I'll use the example of the great work scientists at the National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL, in Golden, Colorado, are doing to advance cellulosic ethanol technologies.

One of our country's big challenges today is reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and to do that we need new fuel options that we can create or grow here in America. Cellulosic ethanol is an advanced biofuel with a great deal of promise because it's produced from abundant and renewable materials like grasses and wood chips, other types of biomass and waste. And because these materials are abundant, cellulosic ethanol has the potential to replace a significant portion of our nation's petroleum consumption.

The challenge comes, however, because unlike corn, these cellulosic materials are made of much more complex starches that are much harder to break down into ethanol. To make the promise of cellulosic ethanol a reality, we need to develop the enzymes and the micro-organisms that could break them down and ferment these more complex starches, and that's where this innovation pipeline comes in.

At the NREL in Colorado, scientists started at this most basic science step here.

Basic science is very fundamental. It's the study of the elementary principles of the universe, really discovery level science.

So, for example, in this application, enzymes are large biological molecules, they are nature's catalysts. They accelerate the metabolic processes that sustain life. And to develop new customized enzymes and micro-organisms capable of converting starchy biomass into cellulosic ethanol, you have to start at the very fundamentals of biochemistry and of biology. This includes studying intricate details of the relevant processes, the biochemical processes, as well as probing the proteins and amino acids that form the building blocks of these enzymes down to the sub-molecular level.

At this point, scientists, having made a series of discoveries, can then move to the applied science stage.

Applied science concerns translating these fundamental discoveries into an application. In this example, scientists apply the insights gained from fundamental basic science research to develop new enzymes with desired performance traits such as high selectivity, specificity, and stability to enable effective and efficient conversion of these complex starches into ethanol

Applied research can also involve controlled lab-scale demonstrations to test and to demonstrate how effectively these newly developed enzymes and micro-organisms can turn wood chips into ethanol.

Still in the lab and very far from commercial scale, the kinds of small discoveries that happen at the applied science level act as an early demonstration that something new, the application of a new discovery, can possibly move further down this pipeline.

At the applied research stage, we are still far away from creating something ready for the market, but between these two stages our scientists have gone from the basic science of how an idea might work to actually demonstrating it could work in practice.

At this point now, the private sector is much more likely to see the potential value of this discovery. Scientists have shown it's possible and next we move to the commercialization and then the scaling and deployment phases, where private investors and private companies take the technology of our national lab scientists and make it into a product that can succeed in the market.

During the applied research stage at NREL, scientists were hard at work showing they really could produce cellulosic ethanol efficiently and cheaply, eventually meeting their goal to make it price competitive with conventional fuels in the commercial marketplace.

That's where we are right now with cellulosic ethanol. Companies across the country, such as DuPont from my own home state of Delaware, Poet from other places in the country, and many others are currently actually building plants, they are doing the scaling and deployment, they're building plants to produce cellulosic ethanol at commercial scale and competitive prices.

So this example is just one model of public-private partnership for innovation and how it works all along this innovation pipeline, where the basic and applied science research begin in a national lab and then are transferred either by the licensing or sale of intellectual property to private-sector companies who then do the very hard work of commercialization and scaling before ultimate delivery to the marketplace, where it can be bought and consumed by Americans and others around the world.

I had the opportunity last year to witness another model of public-private partnership for innovation at a different national lab, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which is home to a unique national asset, the Advanced Light Source, or ALS

The ALS is a very complex, very expensive piece of machinery that serves thousands of researchers – from private sector scientists to university researchers – who use the light sources such as ultraviolet rays, soft x-rays, and infrared light that all come off of the ALS to conduct a wide range of scientific experiments.

Experiments at the ALS are performed at nearly 40 different beam lines that come off the Synchotron and can operate simultaneously around-the-clock and year-round. This facility's remarkable resources would be far too expensive for any one company or university to invest in alone, but by building a national level publicly-owned facility, it's then possible for it to function and to be partly sustained by fees and targeted infrastructure investments by users. And as a result, the ALS has become a place where many different partners from around our country and the world test new ideas and new approaches.

In terms of this innovation pipeline, what the Berkeley Lab and ALS do is allow a very wide range of researchers to engage in different stages of research under one roof. The unique capabilities offered by the ALS attract many industry partners and encourages productive public-private collaboration.

A good example of how this is actually applied into the marketplace is in the semiconductor industry. Semiconductor technology is one of the most transformative scientific breakthroughs of the last century. Semiconductors are at the heart of what makes a modern computer work. Their constant advancement is what allows us to today hold the computing power of last generation's supercomputer in iPhones in our pockets.

However, the manufacturing techniques previously used to produce new, smaller, more powerful semiconductor products just aren't adequate to build the next generation of nano-electronic devices. So what’s happened is a consortium of companies – Intel, IBM, HP, Dow – formed a consortium called SEMATECH to leverage the unique capabilities of the ALS at the Berkeley Lab to advance semiconductor manufacturing for next-generation electronics

As the lab reports, “By tapping into the center's long-term expertise in short wavelength optics and the unique properties of the ALS Synchotron facility, SEMATECH funded the development of the world’s highest resolution projection lithography tool and highest performance extreme-ultraviolet microscope” – developments only possible because of the facilities and the expertise at this unique national lab.

Having then developed these new tools capable of manufacturing the next generation of semiconductor devices, a company like Intel can take that new technology and scale it up at their own plants.

Of course, there are many different variations like these two I've suggested of public-private partnerships that our labs can and have utilized to take ideas from basic science all the way out to the marketplace. These two examples – cellulosic ethanol and semiconductor manufacturing – show us what's really possible when the private sector is able to work in full partnership with our national labs.

In the bill we've introduced here today, Senator Rubio and I are trying to expand the flexibility and freedom of all our national labs to innovate and to build productive partnerships so that every research project has the potential and opportunity to travel this entire pipeline and be deployed to the world markets.

As we see here on the innovation pipeline, the payoff for all this work doesn't come until the very end, so one of the best things we can do together is to focus our policies to make the movement of ideas through this – from the national labs to private-sector partners to the marketplace – as efficient and predictable as possible.

Mr. President, while there are many ideas, many areas, many political subjects on which Senator Rubio and I disagree, I'm pleased that we've been able to work hard and to come together on the America INNOVATES Act today. Because we both agree that government has a role to play investing in fundamental scientific research that can lead to innovations that change our world.

In this bill we're not talking about expanding government or calling for any new spending or new regulation. We're talking about the early science work that only government can fund because there isn't a clear payoff for the private sector, and figuring out how to connect the national labs and the private sector along this innovation pipeline in a better and stronger way to deliver more products to the American marketplace and the world markets.

Once again, I want to thank my Republican colleague, Senator Marco Rubio, and I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join us in supporting this bipartisan innovation jobs bill. Thank you.