Can We Get There From Here?

Without the catalyzing Sputnik moment that the Obama Administration wants, how should the government encourage technological innovation?

by Bruce J. Holmes

My thoughts in a previous blog ("Sputnik Moments") opened with the question on the usefulness and need for the president's claim that this is our generation's such Sputnik moment, and closed with some cheerleading from me for the case that we need it to be. If this is (the moment), where do we go from here? In aviation and air transportation system innovations what will the result be?

The Chicago Tribune of the 1960s printed a marvelous, full-page, color cartoon on the back page of the Sunday funnies titled something like, "The World of Tomorrow." As a youngster with deep curiosity and facility about all things gadget-y, the images of futuristic cities, automated highways, and flying cars pulled me into an imaginary wonderland of -- the world of "what if?..."

We who were attracted to the world of what-could-be, the stuff of visionaries, got a big boost working at NASA in the early 1970s. The agency was alive with exciting aeronautics programs (the first A in NASA) that were created in responses to the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. In fact, all major NASA programs have been developed in response to some form of national crisis. The programs of the 1970s and '80s funded the reduction of risk and the maturation of technologies that industry used to improve the efficiency and performance of turbine engines, to apply new composite and metal materials to airframes, to implement the first computerized avionics, and to use advanced drag-reduction and high-lift aerodynamics. Industry's use of the new capabilities contributed to the extraordinary efficiency and performance of modern transport aircraft. The excitement for the researchers was fueled by access to the first supercomputers, to flight test aircraft, wind tunnels, and research simulators; imagination was our guide. If you could think it up, you could likely try it out. The levels of funding supported big ideas that led to the big improvements, and ultimately, to industrial innovation. We worked hand-on-throttle with industry collaborators and partners to move ideas into the air. Times have changed.

The absence of a catalyzing national crisis in very recent years (claims of our new "Sputnik moment" not withstanding), coupled with the perception in the policy world that the matured world of the airline industry no longer warrants a role of the government in reducing long-term risk, produced a collapse of NASA's budget for this arena of research. Roy Harris, retired Director for Aeronautics at NASA Langley Research Center, wrote about this situation in a recent issue of Aerospace America. Harris notes that the $1.8 billion levels of investments in the past decades has fallen to less than a third of that amount in 2010. The result of this collapse is the diminished ability of the U.S. aeronautics technology community to take on long term risk reduction -- the sorts of technology advancements that propelled the U.S. to aerospace and aeronautics global pre-eminence during the end of the last century. Brian Vastag, in a Washington Post video on January 28, 2011, makes a related point about innovation in America. Vastag observes, "The problem: Grand new ideas where we need them most -- in energy, transportation and health care -- bang up against the old ways of doing things." In aviation, this truth seems to doom the prospects for game-changing breakthroughs in new markets, products, and services for air mobility. Just ask those visionaries who have ventured into the world of financing start-ups in the aviation sector over recent decades. Does this condition mean, "Do not try to go there"? Of course not, but then how do we get there from here?

In my more than three decades of research and technology development, from esoteric aerodynamic boundary layer stability exploration to national technology strategy formulation and execution, the most effective role of government I experienced was in the operation of public-private innovation partnerships. Effective here does not equate with easy, or sustainable, within government organizations that are largely not designed for these kinds of shared decision-making operations. When they worked, the industry and government partnerships were effective in accelerating the reduction of technical risks for new ideas, through leveraging of public and private funds, and shared decision-making. The programs left in place a legacy of industry design guidelines, standards for the new systems, and approaches to meeting regulatory requirements. The result that was mostly invisible to NASA folks was the effect of these results on the ability of industry to attract investment capital because of these advancements. Along the way, the industry's efforts aligned with government program outcomes aimed at public good outcomes (safety, mobility, efficiency, for example). The result was better than "more with less"; it had the effect of stimulating large-scale industrial innovation and entrepreneurial efforts, with the potential of creating a new industry (or at least invigorating an existing one). There have been relatively fewer recent applications of this approach to accelerating technology deployment, perhaps for the simple reason that partnerships are really hard to operate, especially for government organizations that are comfortable with traditional contracted research projects.

In the years since industrial collaboration on pre-competitive technologies was made legal (that is, did not violate Sherman Anti-Trust Law), many innovation alliances between companies and between companies and government have been formed, run their course, and concluded (not all successfully, but enough to demonstrate their value). Examples of these alliances include those that have worked on turbine engine advancements (see IHPTET), streamlined composite materials qualification, crashworthiness, and lightning protection (see AGATE-NIAR), computerized avionics for "glass" cockpits -- now a staple in all aircraft, large, small, and smaller (see AGATE study) and image below, un-crewed air vehicles (see ERAST), computer chip manufacturing (see Sematech), and numerous other technology advancements across industry domains.


The challenges that justify the use of innovation alliances include those that benefit from industry speaking with a unified voice (to regulators and technology standards bodies); those that benefit from aligning industrial and public good outcomes; those that require coordination of efforts between the key parts of any innovation: investment, technology, manufacturing, users/customers, research, and regulation. Do we have challenges today that justify the alliance approach? If we want to create a future in which air mobility reaches its full potential as a contributor to the American quality of life and economic opportunity, we might be well served by realizing that public-private partnerships, rather then traditional research contracts can help us get there from here.

Bruce J. Holmes, retired from his NASA career in public sector entrepreneurialism, is now practicing the art in the private sector as CEO, NextGen AeroSciences