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White House Retools Advanced Manufacturing Efforts

Advanced manufacturing—developing new materials and processes to make things faster, cheaper, and more efficiently—isn't a very sexy topic. But it promises to give an edge to U.S. companies trying to compete in a global economy.

So on Friday the Obama Administration decided to trumpet what the government is doing—and what it hopes to do—with a four-piece band: One, a presidential visit to a leading university to announce a new consortium of government, academic, and industrial leaders that will oversee a $500 million public-private partnership; two, an outside report on the need for ongoing federal research investments in the field totaling $1 billion; three, a $50-million interagency robotics initiative that incorporates many of the key themes in the overall strategy; and four, a government white paper that assigns a sexy name to a $100-million effort to make better materials.

Although the commitment is real, the numbers attached to the various efforts are a bit soft. The figures announced represent a combination of money already on the books of various federal agencies, resources that industry plans to invest, and proposed spending in the president's 2012 budget that Congress is unlikely to match.

The main event was Friday's presidential visit to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Obama used the occasion to mark the debut of an Advanced Manufacturing Partnership consisting of leaders from government, industry, and academia. That triad is a familiar construct for this Administration, which has previously heralded the value of public-private partnerships in improving education, increasing broadband access to the Internet, and delivering better health care. Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Andrew Liveris, CEO of the Dow Chemical Company, will serve as co-chairs of the partnership, which is supposed to "build a roadmap for advanced manufacturing technologies" over the next decade.

Forming such a partnership was in fact a key recommendation of a report released Friday by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), perhaps marking record time for turning advice into policy. The 56-page report calls for an ongoing Advanced Manufacturing Initiative, starting at $500 million a year and growing to $1 billion annually by the fourth year. It would identify the most promising opportunities and suggest which federal agencies should provide funding, and how much. Potential areas include advanced robotics, nanoelectronics, materials by design, and biomanufacturing. The PCAST report also reiterates the importance of three things the president has promised to do: make permanent the federal R&D tax credit, boost the nation's overall spending on research to 3% of the country's gross domestic product, and double over 10 years the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).

Riding the high-level publicity for advanced manufacturing, NSF on Friday also hit the streets with a solicitation for a National Robotics Initiative offering up to $50 million to researchers with the best ideas on how to, in the words of the announcement, "accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work beside, or cooperatively with, people." The money will come from four federal agencies: NSF, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the announcement explains that the initiative's goal of making from 60 to 75 awards "is subject to the availability of funds," meaning fulfillment of the 2012 budget requests for each agency.

The collaboration highlights the multidisciplinary nature of the field, with each agency focusing on mission-related areas in which robots are making a growing contribution. In the biomedical arena, for example, that includes using robots to improve home health care and surgery as well as to accelerate drug screening and DNA sequencing technologies. Agriculture officials are interested in automated systems for the inspection and sorting of plants and animals, while NASA would like to step up its use of robonauts to help humans working on the international space station. "We've been funding robotics for quite awhile, but it's pretty clear that we're falling behind Japan, Korea, and Europe," says C. Suzanne Iacono of NSF's computer and information science engineering directorate.

In an unusual twist, NSF will maintain the solicitation and peer review for all four agencies. "Everybody has agreed we have the right system in place," says Iacono. But once the proposals have been vetted, the best ideas will be funneled to each agency for final disposition. Researchers tabbed by NIH for funding, for example, will have to resubmit their proposal to NIH's Center for Scientific Review.

In his CMU speech, Obama did his best to add sizzle to the admittedly wonky topic of improved manufacturing technologies. "Imagine if America was first to develop and mass-produce a new treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched, or solar cells you can brush onto a house for the same cost as paint, or flexible displays that soldiers can wear on their arms, or a car that drives itself," the president said. In that vein, one of the efforts Obama highlighted that is already underway—a $100 million program to "discover, develop, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials"—has been given the sexier label of the Materials Genome Initiative.

Gerbrand Ceder, an MIT professor of materials science, says the phrase "materials genome" is shorthand for "how using high-throughput computing can improve the process of designing materials to accelerate innovation." He started using the word when MIT launched such a program 5 years ago, he says, and after Obama took office he began discussing the topic with White House officials, who loved the name as much as the concept. "[They] decided to fold it into a larger initiative, but they kept the name because they thought it was really catchy," he says.

The Materials Genome Initiative is described in an 18-page white paper—issued on Friday, of course—by the interagency National Science and Technology Council. The initiative includes NSF, DOE, NIST, and the Department of Defense, and various elements are included in those agencies' 2012 budget request, although not under that name. Funding solicitations have yet to be released.