A new advanced manufacturing center will focus on integrated photonics. Here, a researcher at the Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory holds a photonic crystal made from bismuth germanate.

A new advanced manufacturing center will focus on integrated photonics. Here, a researcher at the Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory holds a photonic crystal made from bismuth germanate.

Savannah River Site/Flickr

After Election 2014: ADVANCED MANUFACTURING

This story is the second in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

Today, a look at an issue that both Democrats and Republicans can embrace: advanced manufacturing.

Conventional wisdom holds that today’s hyperpartisan environment in Washington, D.C., has poisoned any chance of political compromise. If so, then advanced manufacturing may be the antidote.

Lawmakers from both parties have embraced the idea of a national network of centers aimed at developing better manufacturing technologies, materials, and processes, an idea originally put forth by President Barack Obama. And Congress is well on the way toward turning that idea into reality.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill (H.R. 2996) that would allow the government to create such a manufacturing network. The legislation contains many elements found in Obama’s 2012 proposal for a $1 billion, 15-node National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). Even before Congress authorizes such a network, the White House has funneled money to an initial cluster of six centers. The centers cover a range of topics; the first is focusing on 3D printing, for example, while the most recent will target integrated photonics.

That kind of unilateral White House action typically makes many congressional Republicans apoplectic. Not this time. Although much of the administration’s legislative agenda—in health care, energy, climate, and immigration, to cite just a few examples—has been blocked by partisan fights, advanced manufacturing has become an issue that everyone can rally around. Its promise of generating lots of well-paying jobs is especially appealing to politicians anxious about a still-precarious economic recovery. “This bill is an opportunity for the United States to bring jobs back to our shores, so we can make it here and sell it there,” proclaims Representative Tom Reed (R–NY), the House bill’s lead Republican sponsor.

For such a bipartisan coalition to exist, Republicans like Reed have had to abandon what party leaders a generation ago would have dismissed as unnecessary “industrial policy” and an inappropriate government intrusion into the private sector. For their part, Democrats have had to dial back their preference for launching a program by growing the federal budget. In this instance, that has meant acquiescing to fiscally conservative Republicans in putting more resources into advanced manufacturing without an overall increase in spending. In the case of the House-passed bill, the money would come from an existing program within the Department of Energy that fosters energy-saving and green manufacturing technologies.

The Senate has so far failed to act on a companion bill (S. 1468) that is similar to the House bill. But advocates say it’s still possible that Congress will return after the election and take the final steps needed to both authorize the network and adopt related policies aimed at strengthening U.S. manufacturing.

A national network

What exactly is advanced manufacturing? And why has it become a front-burner issue?

Advanced manufacturing is not simply having companies find more efficient ways to make better widgets. It also requires training technically savvy workers, revising tax and regulatory policies, and supporting fundamental research that will lead to the breakthrough technologies needed to keep U.S. companies ahead of their global competitors.

All manner of high-ranking advisory bodies have weighed in on the subject in recent years, and Obama has mentioned it in his last two State of the Union addresses as well as on several other occasions. A January 2014 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service does an excellent job of summarizing the history of the idea, including the work of an interagency panel, and the challenges that lie ahead. Last month, for example, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology adopted an Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Strategy 2.0 that builds upon a 2012 report describing what changes are needed.

Some ascribe near-mythic powers to advanced manufacturing. The Republican floor manager for the recently passed House bill, Representative Larry Bucshon (R–IN), extolled the sector’s ability to “create good-paying, family-supporting, community-sustaining jobs.” And sports metaphors abound when politicians talk about the subject. “This is the kind of approach that … will keep America in the manufacturing game,” Obama said in March 2012 as he rolled out his vision during a visit to a Petersburg, Virginia, plant making disks for jet engines.

For researchers, the payoff is a bit more tangible. On 3 October, Obama flew to southern Indiana to announce that the Department of Defense (DOD) has committed $100 million to the winner of an upcoming competition for a national center on integrated photonics manufacturing.

“This is a major addition of funding for optics and photonics,” says Eric Van Stryland of the University of Central Florida, Orlando, about a technology to produce silicon-based integrated circuits and communications equipment using light instead of electronics. “Anytime you dump $200 million into a field, it had better have a big impact.” (Stryland’s $200 million figure refers to the fact that the winner of the competition must at least match DOD’s contribution with funding from dozens of industrial, academic, and nonfederal public partners.)

The photonics center would be the sixth node in the emerging network. DOD has already pledged $70 million apiece to support two other existing Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs)—one on digital manufacturing and design innovation led by the University of Illinois and based in Chicago, and the second on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing innovation based in Detroit. The Department of Energy is investing $70 million in an IMI on next-generation power electronics manufacturing based at North Carolina State University and will soon announce the winner of a center on composite materials. The first IMI, a pilot focused on 3D printing and based in Youngstown, Ohio, was launched less than 6 months after Obama’s Virginia speech by several agencies, with the largest contribution—$30 million over 3 years—coming from DOD. And DOD plans to follow up its choice of an integrated photonics center with a second center focused on another topic chosen from a list of six candidate fields.

In addition to assembling top talent in a particular field, each institute is expected to drive regional economic development. The idea that hosting an IMI will help their state or district become a leading center of manufacturing innovation in a particular field is a powerful lure for politicians.

That promise is why Bucshon, normally a fierce critic of the administration’s social and economic policies, joined Mike Pence, the state’s Republican governor, on an airport tarmac in southern Indiana to greet the president when he flew in to tout the new DOD-backed center on integrated photonics. It’s also why Representative Mike Honda (D–CA), who represents part of Silicon Valley, felt free to mark last month’s positive House vote by noting, “Hopefully, once this bill is enacted, we can win one of these centers.”

Striking a compromise

While the IMIs created by the White House represent a real financial commitment, the pending legislation is at most an expression of congressional intent. It would authorize the government to spend money on the centers, leaving the final decision to appropriators. That two-step process makes passage of the bill a slightly lower priority for lobbyists like Tom Hausken, a senior adviser at the Optical Society in Washington, D.C., which pushed hard for the creation of the integrated photonics IMI.

“We certainly support the RAMI legislation,” he says, using the acronym for the bills’ title, Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act. But the Pentagon’s recent announcement means “we have a bird in the hand,” says Hausken, who praises Obama for “doing [IMIs] within the existing budgetary authority.”  

Still, the legislation could lead to additional centers in related fields. Both the House and Senate bills would give the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) the authority to spend $300 million over 10 years to stand up four or more centers for manufacturing innovation. Both also would create a $10 million program to support regional innovation clusters and require outside experts to conduct a quadrennial assessment of the nation’s progress in meeting its goals to improve U.S. manufacturing.

Appropriators have signaled their support with language in the 2014 omnibus bill that funded NIST and every other federal agency. The only reason the bill did not include money for NNMI, the lawmakers wrote earlier this year, was because the proposal had not yet “been considered or approved by the Congress.”

That language was an implicit acknowledgement that House and Senate lawmakers must first reconcile their differences on how to fund the network. The House bill would shift $250 million from an existing program within the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) that supports advanced manufacturing technologies aimed at lowering energy costs and promoting renewables. (The remaining $50 million, to operate a program office and conduct relevant studies like the quadrennial review, would come from an existing NIST account that provides technical support to industry.) In contrast, the Senate bill would create a $300 million fund for NIST, to be offset by taking money from some unspecified federal account.

The choice of moving money from EERE by House Republicans is deliberate. Its programs are a perennial target for opponents of the administration’s climate and energy policies. The shift would potentially drain the EERE program: Its current budget includes $81 million for the type of facilities represented by the IMIs. (The White House’s 2015 budget for the program asks for $190 million.)

The shift in funds also allows Republicans to keep their pledge to fund new activities only by tapping programs deemed a lower priority. “The NMI [Network for Manufacturing Innovation] will not increase spending,” asserted Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the House science committee with oversight of both agencies, during the 15 September House debate on Reed’s bill.

That requirement was a hard pill for House Democrats to swallow. “The shifting of funds was the price that had to be paid for winning GOP support,” explains Ken Scudder, Honda’s communications director. “Fortunately, the offset is spread out over 9 years, and the secretary of energy would have the discretion to decide how much to transfer. The secretary is unlikely to act in a way that would decimate the department’s programs.”

The provisions in the bill on where the money would come from could create a problem down the line, warned Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the science panel’s ranking Democrat. In general, appropriators view such language as an infringement on their ability to allocate federal dollars. In the floor debate, Johnson called it “an unnecessary obstacle … that could make it difficult to stand up and sustain this program.”

In the end, however, she and her fellow Democrats decided that the bill was too good an opportunity to pass up. “I strongly support this legislation, and I urge all of my colleagues to do the same,” Johnson declared. Minutes later, on a voice vote, they did.

Three days after the House acted, participants in the four regional centers already operating came to Washington to tout their accomplishments and build momentum for NNMI and RAMI. In welcoming them to the Capitol Hill event, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker described the bipartisan legislation as an essential piece of the administration’s plans for advanced manufacturing. “These institutes present a clear reminder that making this bill the law of the land would spur more innovation, continue the comeback of American manufacturers, and send an unmistakable message to our competitors around the world—that America is open for business,” Pritzker told attendees. “That is why [passing] the RAMI Act is so critical.”    

With everybody on the bandwagon, advanced manufacturing seems well-positioned to deliver a rare win-win for both parties.

ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series will look at a range of issues that will be on policymakers’ agenda once the voters have spoken on 4 November. Look for stories on: