“Exploring both traditional and nontraditional means for technology transfer to the private sector is equally important if we hope to leverage space technology development as an engine for economic growth and US competitiveness.” – Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS)
A July 12 hearing in the House Science, Space and Technology’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee highlighted National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) investments which have generated technology that has had direct economic and social benefits.
Palazzo opened the hearing by acknowledging that NASA’s contributions to society are often not a focus of the discussions about the Agency while recognizing that NASA technologies have paved the way for innovative advances in the areas of medicine, environmental research, and public safety. He said that despite decades of success, NASA’s budget has “remained essentially flat even as other [research and development] agencies are seeing increases. Investment in NASA’s technology transfer activities, however, has seen a drastic decline in recent years.”
A NASA Inspector General (IG) Report on Technology Transfer concluded:
“NASA has missed opportunities to transfer technologies from its research and development efforts and to maximize partnerships that could provide additional resources, and industry and the public have not fully benefited from NASA-developed technologies.”
Regarding the IG report, Palazzo commented that “the IG found a general lack of awareness among NASA program managers about the technology transfer and commercialization process and that many personnel did not understand the range of technologies that could be considered as technological assets. Furthermore, the report found that the number of patent attorneys and dedicated Innovative Partnership Office staff – and related funding – was insufficient given the technology transfer and commercialization potential. The IG recommended NASA implement a review of the policy process and implement new procedures and training requirements to ensure NASA personnel were fully aware of the process and their responsibilities. The IG also recommended that NASA reassess the allocation of resources for technology transfer.”
NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck highlighted how NASA stimulates the growth of the US innovation economy. “NASA takes on extraordinary challenges by taking humans to inhospitable environments…. Solving technical problems in aerospace also leads us to invent technologies that make life better right here on Earth,” Peck stated. He highlighted examples of knowledge from NASA space craft being used in weather forecasting; improvements made to protective gear used by military and firefighters that was a result of NASA research on spacesuits; and NASA contributions to research in the areas of biomedical applications, energy efficiency, agriculture, and supercomputing.
Peck noted that NASA “agrees with the findings of the IG and has taken advantage of the report to make a number of improvements to their program.” He also stressed that the spinoff products and companies stemming from NASA research rely on NASA having an on-going robust investment in research and technology. The creation of new NASA technology leads to transformational capabilities, new industries, new economic growth and jobs.
George Beck, Chief Clinical and Technology Officer at Impact Instrumentation, Inc., described how the Space Act Agreement created a government, industry, and academic partnership that allowed all three groups to share institutional knowledge and experience while developing solutions that benefit society.
Brian Russell, Chief Executive Officer of Zephyr Technology highlighted NASA’s role in a wide variety of projects including monitoring the health of trapped Chilean miners. John Vilja, Vice President for Strategy, Innovation, and Growth at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, also emphasized the value of NASA in industries other than space, explaining that NASA is a source of intellectual capital that allows companies to test new processes and conduct multi-disciplinary research.
Vilja stressed “that we have an energy policy or a NASA science policy that continues to make the technology that allows us to go forward and create spinoffs and that means we have to keep investing in developments as well as production as well as coming up with new technologies.” He explained that the development of technologies allows for the possibility of spinoffs while production allows for the measurement of these new technologies. He suggested that NASA policies should especially focus on how to create new technologies since the payback is uncertain.
Richard Aubrecht, Vice President of Moog, Inc., stated that “new technology is not just in the drawings and reports and hardware that is built. What is really important is that you are building the capability of a team of people who understand how to take on a really really hard problem and as a result of doing that, they develop the confidence to be able to take on other really hard problems.”
During the Member questioning period, Ranking Member Jerry Costello (D-IL) recognized the tremendous challenge in educating the public as to what NASA is doing and asked the panel of witnesses about how NASA actively engages the public, universities, and teachers. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) asked about NASA’s engagement with the entrepreneurial community. Rep. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI) was extremely interested in learning more about how to leverage NASA spinoff technologies in Detroit in order to create jobs. Clarke asked the witnesses as to what barriers companies face when partnering with NASA to which there was a consensus that projects need to be consistently brought to fruition.