So, off we go. I had a very busy day today, starting with Susan Butts of Dow Chemicals. I had actually met her before, as she was at the lunch for Janez given by the Slovenian Ambassador when we were in Washington in February. She deals with external science and technology programs – basically university/industry links. Our dicsussions focussed on the Bayh-Dole Act, which helped universities to patent their intellectual property. The interesting thing she said was that Bayh-Dole was about making MORE of public money – by handing ownership to the universities benefitting from government grants and letting them license that technology to industry, the public saw more benefit from its investment in R&D than it was doing through more open system, in terms of new products and services. Relying on publishing won’t work, because companies want to be the only ones that have a technology. She did feel that industry needs to respect the culture of publication that exists in universities, but the two (patenting and publishing) can work in tandem. A key point was that the two parts of the tech transfer chain – companies and universities – need to understand better the needs and wishes of the other if the system is to function properly. Universities need to be aware that companies take a risk in developing a product and not every technology works. If 1 in 10 products they develop comes to market, then they cannot pay the price for all 10 as if they were going to work out. Another interesting point was that intellectual property along the Bayh-Dole lines is just a part of technology transfer between businesses and universities. Much more happens through publication and students moving from universities to work in business. She didn’t see a big problem with students leaving science at the doctoral level (though acknowledged this was more of an issue at the bachelor level) but saw a much bigger problem for the US in the fact that foreign PhD students who would have stayed in the US in the past are now going home (to India and China, for example). It was a really interesting meeting – I’ve addressed just a small part of what we discussed, so if you’d like to hear more, let me know!
My next meeting was with Eldon Baes, who is on the staff of the Energy, Science and Technology Subcommittee of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Our discussion focused almost entirely on biofuels. The debate about the sustainability of biofuels is going on the US as well as the EU. He pointed out that for biofuels to increase we need the “second generation” technologies to come on stream very very soon. He mentioned work on creating diesel from algae, which has 60-80% efficiency. Much of what they are planning to do is in the Farm Bill, which they hope to have adopted this year. That will provide a few million dollars a year of funding to support research on potential biofuel feedstocks. They were also use the Farm Bill to work on energy efficiency and renewable energy. There is a proposal to set up rural energy systems renewal pilots to bring solutions to the community level (which is where they need to be). It will also encourage the biorefineries that are developed to function on biomass energy.
Then I headed into the Capitol building for a briefing organised by the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus. It focused on education and public communication – school curricula, museums. One interesting point was that events about science for children can actually have a big effect on parents, as they discuss the issues with the people running the event.
I then left the event with Julia Moore of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and we went to talk about nanotech in more detail. A really fascinating discussion. EU isn’t really seen as a world leader in nanotech, though we looked at quite a few of the regulatory/oversight issues where the EU was seen to be more “nano-ready”. But in terms of the development, the real potential in terms of world leadership is China, which has as many nano-scientists (that’s scientists working on nano as opposed to really really tiny scientists…) as the US.
They have a National Nanotechnology Initiative, which Julia felt had achieved even more than the originators could have imagined, certainly in terms of the number of nanotechnology products already on the market (almost 600) and the areas they are in.
Another cultural difference between the US and EU that arose was the role of labelling – apparently research shows that Europeans put much more emphasis on and trust in labelling as a way of letting them know what’s going on. Americans don’t need labelling, but they need to know that the information is available, even if they don’t access it.
So, really good day all round, topped off my dinner with Chak Hee and Naseef and a beer with Peter, our Greenpeace activist.