Sandia LabNews

Collaborate to innovate, innovate to succeed

What a perfect match-up of venue and event.

The just-opened Bldg. 858 East, one of the newest components in the growing MESA complex, welcomed its first-ever outside group, invited to Sandia to participate in the Accelerating Engineering Innovation summit.

MESA itself, of course, is Sandia’s half-billion dollar campus whose underlying vision is to provide the tools, the resources, and the infrastructure needed to advance engineering R&D for the 21st century. As Labs Director Tom Hunter has noted, it is intended to be part of Sandia’s initiative to be leaders in transforming how engineering is done.

The summit participants, a blue-chip group of senior science and engineering officials from industry, academia, and the national laboratories, convened at the Labs last Thursday to lay the groundwork for closer collaboration among the three US R&D research communities to address engineering innovation.

The summit was hosted by Sandia as a response to the American Competitiveness Initiative set forth by President Bush; it calls for a multi-billion investment in R&D, education, entrepreneurship, and pro-research tax incentives. New Mexico’s senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman have been strong champions of the initiative in Congress.

The summit began with a kick-off event on May 31, with Tom and Intel Chairman Craig Barrett discussing the current landscape for engineering in the US, problems with science and math education in K-12, and how to make engineering more attractive to young students (see “Summit tackles engineering innovation” on page 1).

The Thursday session, hosted by Div. 1000 VP and Chief Technology Officer Rick Stulen, featured a series of panel discussions by representatives from the three communities. During the presentations, panelists laid out their views on the obstacles that stand in the way of advancing US engineering to the next level.

Perhaps the single dominant theme of the three panels was that the communities need to get better — much better — at collaboration. Senior executives at the meeting said US industry is increasingly turning to foreign universities and institutes for partnerships to develop advanced technology, in part because it takes too long to develop an agreement here in the US.

The industry panel discussed what is missing from today’s engineering graduates. They need employees who can communicate well, understand the competitive market, are strongly grounded in math and science, and are not simply trained but rather have the capacity to think and learn.

There was consensus that effective teaming is vital to innovation. As one panelist put it, “The ‘Eureka moment’ is not the lone nerd in the corner saying ‘Aha!’” but two people — or more — coming to the realization that they can discover and innovate more effectively by working together than by working alone.

Another panelist, responding to a skeptical question about whether innovation is really a group phenomenon, offered the perspective that innovation belongs to the group, while discovery and invention may very well still reside to some extent in the individual.

Rick Stulen, serving as a panelist on the government labs panel, noted that there are pretty decent models for effective partnering between various combinations among any two of the three communities: government and academia, academia and industry, industry and government. The missing model, he said, is a good, sustainable and agile approach to successful partnering among all three communities. Such models exist in Europe and Asia, but because of different funding streams for the universities and different sociopolitical environments, these approaches haven’t been as widely successful in the US. Time is the currency of the future, noted several participants, and in Europe and Asia, partnership agreements can be completed in a matter of days.

Said another participant: “Institutions that learn how to partner effectively are going to win — and nations that learn how to partner are going to win.”

The summit initiated planning for a partnership among industries, universities, and national laboratories to establish a series of national innovation institutes to address issues identified during the summit discussions. The participants strongly endorsed Sandia’s role to help lead the engineering innovation agenda, beginning with the emerging needs in nanoengineering.

Next steps include a report to DOE on the summit outcome, a follow-up conference to hone the specifics of what an effective government/ industry/academia institute might look like, and related follow-up activities required to make the vision of the summit a reality.