NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan told me that Fox’s project is a “model” of what he is trying to achieve at NSF, “We need to make sure we understand what we location. The project fits perfectly with our plan.”
Fuchs tried to keep politics out of the pilot program. She was determined to avoid the fate of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which became a political lightning rod and was closed in 1995 at the request of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia. “One mistake that OTAs make is that they say what we should do,” she said. Instead, she said, “We will provide data analysis that informs how different options affect different outcomes. Lawmakers will decide how to balance priorities.”
The balancing act of lawmakers involves choosing between such broadly worthy goals as promoting national security, protecting the environment, creating well-paying jobs, and reducing social inequality. Those goals could collide because bringing lithium mining and refining to the U.S. would create jobs and make supply chains more resilient, but could lead to local water and air pollution. But it is possible to design win-win solutions. Team members Elsa Olivetti of MIT and Kate Whitefoot of Carnegie Mellon University are looking for strategies to help protect the environment and American jobs, such as domestically developing new technologies to replace battery chemistries and recycle critical minerals.
As an example of how critical technology assessments can work, Fuchs said a Carnegie Mellon University team helped devise a new way to prevent computer chip shortages that have hit cars and other products during the pandemic. manufacturing. The team found that a lack of flexibility was a big part of the problem: Certain chips could only be made on specific lines in specific factories. The team recommends that the government create a common base format for the chips, similar to how automakers use the same chassis to make many models of cars. This would allow chips to be manufactured on more than one dedicated production line. If those spare fab lines belong to them, domestic and foreign chipmakers could agree to the plan so they don’t lose business to competitors.
One of Fuchs’ team, Rena Conti, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, focuses on the healthcare supply chain. That includes imported hormones used in birth control pills and menopause treatments used by 30 million American women, as well as generic drugs made from ingredients made in India, China and elsewhere. Her group is working on technologies such as synthetic biology and advanced manufacturing that could facilitate more reshoring of production, as well as additional checks on quality control and technical assistance to improve the reliability of ingredients that continue to be sourced from abroad.
Conti says Fuchs excels at working across disciplines. Although not an economist, Fuchs is an associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Engineers don’t necessarily understand economists, and vice versa. She’s helping us find a common language to address commonly perceived challenges,” Conte said. Olivetti, a professor of materials science and engineering, agrees: “She has the ability to interface with people. She builds a network.”
If the Fuchs-led pilot project succeeds in demonstrating the power of information sharing to enhance America’s technological capabilities, the $4 million spent on it will be well worth it.