The NSF Engines Program and New TIP Directorate – Interview with Erwin Gianchandani, NSF [GovFuture Podcast]

Erwin Gianchandani, NSF

In this episode of the GovFuture podcast we interview Erwin Gianchandani who is the National Science Foundation’s Assistant Director for the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. We had the opportunity to discuss the new NSF Regional Innovation Engines program and its new TIP directorate, the first directorate launched by the NSF in over 32 years.

Building upon the demo at the April 2023 GovFuture Forum, Erwin shares with us details about NSF’s Engines Concept Outline Explorer and the process by which NSF went about developing the app. He also shares some of the interesting work the NSF is doing around analytics and data visualization.

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Show Notes:

Trimmed Episode Transcript: (note there may be transcription errors or mis-attributions, so please consult the audio file for any potential errors)

[GovFuture] We have Erwin Gianchandani, who is the National Science Foundation’s Assistant Director for the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. Hi, Erwin, and thank you so much for joining us today.

[Erwin Gianchandani] Hey, thanks so much for having me, Kathleen and Ron. Great to be with you today. Looking forward to the conversation.

[GovFuture] We are as well. We’d like to start by having you introduce yourself to our listeners and tell them a little bit about your background and your current role at NSF.

[Erwin Gianchandani] Sure, happy to do so. So I have been at the National Science Foundation for a little over a decade now, actually, I think the 11 years this September. I came to NSF having worked in the nonprofit sector here in the DC area for about two and a half years.

I actually have sort of on again off again relationship, if you will, with the NSF that goes back almost two decades now. I was a summer intern here, then a triple AS science and technology policy fellow after I got my PhD in biomedical engineering. And then for the last decade or so, as I said, been on the professional staff here at NSF on a full time basis. So my background is at the intersection of computer science and biomedical engineering, very interdisciplinary background. And that’s really the area that I have operated in on and off in my time here at NSF as well.

I think some common themes are around interdisciplinarity, convergence, trying to bring together various perspectives, trying to really help shape new research directions, and particularly in various technology areas as well. So I started off at NSF for the first eight years or so I was in our directorate for computer and information science and engineering or CISE size for short. That directorate was one of seven directorates here at NSF until last year, where the mission was to be able to advance the frontiers of computer science. So all new different areas of computing. That includes research, it includes workforce development, it includes infrastructure that one might need to be able to enable that research as well. And for about six of those years that I was in the size directorate, I served as the deputy there overseeing together with the lead and the rest of the leadership team, a budget of close to a billion dollars and now over a billion dollars in size as well.

For the last two and a half almost three years now. I’ve been working very closely with the director of NSF, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan who joined the foundation about three years ago. And in particular, I’ve worked closely with him and the rest of the NSF leadership team and the rest of our workforce in fact as well on conceptualizing and now implementing this new directorate for technology innovation and partnerships. So I said, size was one of seven directorates, it’s now one of eight directorates because as of March of last year, we stood up a new directorate whose focus is on tech and innovation and public private partnerships to enable that tech and innovation as well. And I think we’ll talk a little bit more about our goals for that directorate here in just a little bit. So, for the last year or so since we founded the directorate I’ve been serving as the assistant director for TIPS so that means I lead the directorate again together with a great team that we’ve been able to pull together.

That’s trying to have a positive impact and trying to be responsive and an alignment to both congressional as well as administration, as well as the director’s own priorities as well when it comes to this direction. Yeah, that’s fantastic. And as a matter of fact, part of the way that we learned about the directorate and some of the things you’re doing is we saw a great demo of some of the great technology at a got future forum event. And that brings up some interesting ideas and some questions. I know that the NSF is doing some really interesting things around analytics and data visualization.

[GovFuture] So can you share us some of the details around the thing that was demoed at got future forum, which was the NSF’s engine concept outline Explorer and perhaps some of the process by which the NSF one round developing the app and maybe some of the background for our listeners who may not have been able to see it and know more about it.

[Erwin Gianchandani] Sure, absolutely.

So let me actually start a little bit with the background because I think that background is very relevant and helpful here. So the NSF engines concept outline Explorer is based off of the NSF engines program. So what is the NSF engines program? So this program is the full name of it is the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines or NSF Engines Program. It’s a program that we launched almost just over a year ago actually now May 3 of 2022. And it’s a program that is officially authorized by Congress as part of the Chips and Science Act legislation that the Congress passed and the president signed into law last summer. So we were anticipating something like a Chips and Science Act legislation. And so we rolled out the engines program in advance of the official passage, but in strong alignment with what Congress and the administration and of course the director were all anticipating and expecting of us as we were moving forward. So the engines program is really a bold and we believe and we hope it will be a transformational investment by NSF and by the federal government.

The goal of this program is to be able to bring together a variety of different sectors, academia, industry, nonprofits, state, local, tribal, governmental organizations, economic development entities, civil society, really bring together the full constellation of talent that exists all across the country. And particularly so in what we call regional cohorts. So you could imagine a region that comprises various communities, maybe a state or two or more that are coming together. They collectively have a shared interest in a particular topic. That topic may be at the intersection of technology like artificial intelligence or advanced wireless or advanced materials and manufacturing and a key societal or economic challenge that we face in that region or as a nation.

So an example might be agriculture, food and agriculture production and security, for instance. So the idea is can we bring together, can we coalesce teams from these various diverse backgrounds and diverse sectors who maybe historically have been operating in a particular region around a common topic, but they’ve only been loosely connected. And so now by virtue of this program and the investment that we’re providing and the framework that we’re making available, can we now bring that team much more tightly integrated together in a way that allows that team to really make some significant progress in that particular topic space or in that particular area. And so our goal is with the engines program in particular to be able to do something that the director likes to say here at NSF, create opportunities everywhere by seizing upon the innovation potential that exists just about anywhere in this country. So a lot of our federal investment over the course of the last several decades as part of the technological boom that we’ve seen in this country and around the world has tended to concentrate on coasts or in big cities.

And so this is really about trying to be able to provide those opportunities to harness the full geography of innovation, the full demography of innovation that exists in every corner of the country. And so with the engines program, we are anticipating two types of awards. One is what we call type one or development awards. So these are smaller scale investments on the order of a million dollars over a couple of years to essentially help a team that’s just starting to come together. to fine-tune its vision, what is the topic space of interest, what is the region of service, who are the partners who are coming together, what will be its vision over the next several years if it was to get additional substantive funding from NSF. And then the other type of award is what we call a type two or a full-fledged engine, where the support level is to the tune of up to $160 million over up to 10 years. So that’s a significant amount of investment by NSF and the federal government, significant time horizon as well. It constitutes doing things very differently than the way NSF has traditionally done things in terms of our investments of research and workforce development. And our goal with these investments at the end of the day is we wanna really be able to enable new technological outputs and we wanna enable new workforce capabilities and outputs as well. We wanna train talent at all levels.

Yes, graduate students, which is what NSF is well known for, but also students at the undergraduate level, students in community colleges, training researchers, practitioners, technicians, educators, the full gamut of talent that you need in a particular region, focusing on a particular topic to catalyze the innovation ecosystem for that region. So I know that was long winded Ron and Kathleen, but that’s I think important background to appreciate how that feeds into this concept outline explorer then.

So we, as a first step for the engines program said, submit to us concept outlets, three to five pages. Of who are the folks who are coming together in your region? What is the topic space and what is that region of service that you are interested in? And we said to the community, we would do something that we’ve never really done as an agency, which is we’ll take those concept outlines and we will put them onto a public facing dashboard to share all of that information. The individuals involved, the organizations involved, the topics, the regions, et cetera, share all of that information for public consumption. And our goal with the concept outline explorer, Ron and Kathleen was to be able to do two things.

Number one, help teams be able to find one another. So let’s say that, you know, we’re in the DC, Maryland, Virginia region, the DMV region, right? Let’s say that you have a couple of schools that are coming together in Northern Virginia in the biotech space and they are a region of services, the DMV.

But there’s another couple of schools that are also interested in the biotech space and maybe some industry as well, interested in the biotech space and they are coming together around the DMV as a region. Well, rather than have them ultimately write really lengthy proposals and compete with one another, our goal with the Concept Outlines Explorer was to be able to have them see one another, find one another and really engender teaming so that you can bring the best of a particular region to bear on the research that’s being proposed, the workforce development that’s being proposed going forward. And so that’s kind of what our main goal with the Concept Outline Explorer was. The other goal was to really bring transparency to the process, right? To be able to allow for folks to be able to see what is NSF doing, what are these teams doing so that maybe a team doesn’t in the long run get funded by NSF, but nonetheless, maybe there are other funders out there who would be interested in tapping into what that team is proposing to pursue going forward. And so there was a long amount of effort, long process and a significant amount of effort that went into stitching together this Concept Outline Explorer. It was spearheaded by Grace Yuan, who’s our data analytics officer within the TIP Directorate here at NSF.

And essentially it was about, again, how do you bring transparency to the data in a way that’s meaningful and coherent and in a way that’s accessible to a broad population? How can you make it easy to search that dashboard? How can you make it easy for teams to be able to find one another and send emails to one another saying we’re interested in potentially partnering? Would you be interested in partnering with us as well? And I’ll just say, we were super excited with the response that we got to the program.

We had close to 700 Concept Outlines that came in and that we made available through this dashboard. Every state and territory in the country was lit up. We had folks from every state and territory, which is really unprecedented. And what we saw from the Concept Outlines to the proposals that we got, there was indeed the kind of teaming that we were hoping we would be able to orchestrate by making these data available in this publicly accessible way.

[GovFuture] You know, it’s always great to hear that the idea actually lived out the way that you wanted it to. And when we saw the demo, it really was impressive.

And Grace had showed us how every single state and territory was covered, which you’re right, isn’t always something, it’s something that we’re trying to do something you hope for, but not always something that’s possible. Also the collaboration, the ability for it to be really easy to understand dashboards that people can collaborate. That’s always great to hear because sometimes as much as the government wants to be, it can be more transparent or it can be easier to use and access and gain that information, especially from people outside the region, maybe that this DMV region, that don’t always work with the government or don’t always understand how to do things.

It really was an incredible dashboard. We’ll make sure to link to it in the show notes. And we also will link to Grace’s demo as well, so people can see that firsthand because it really is something to watch if you haven’t seen it. Earlier on in your introduction, you had talked about the new directorate that was established by NSF. For our listeners that maybe aren’t familiar with it, could you tell us a little bit more about it and why now?

[Erwin Gianchandani] Yeah, absolutely. So really excited about this. So Kathleen, I’ll just stress, I think at the outset, one important point here, which is, you know, NSF established the tip directorate officially on March 16th of last year. That day is probably going to be ingrained in my mind forever. And so when we stood up this directorate, this was the first time in 32 years that we stood up a new directorate here at NSF.

So we certainly don’t do this every day. There were for a long time seven directorates. Now we have eight with the establishment of TIP. And in many ways, I think many of us here at NSF, starting with the director on down to the rest of us, really view this as a generational opportunity, more than a generational opportunity for NSF, for the nation’s scientific enterprise and really for the nation as a whole as well. And what’s even more exciting, I think, is, you know, this was a vision that originated many years ago in the Endless Frontier Act, which was a piece of legislation that Senator Schumer and Senator Young in Congress were encouraging, that legislation evolved in various forms, bits and forms ultimately became the Chips in Science Act that I mentioned earlier that the president signed into law in August of last year. That legislation specifically calls out the importance of this directorate and authorizes the establishment of this directorate.

So why now? Well, I’ll say that there are sort of three reasons that drive the establishment of the TIP directorate today. One is the competition that we face in key technology areas all around the world. Every country, including our adversaries, is investing heavily in AI and wireless in biotechnology and so forth.

And for the U.S. to remain competitive in these areas, we need to make comparative investments as well to be able to ensure that we continue to be in the vanguard of competitiveness in those areas. Secondly, we see the pressing societal and economic challenges that we face that technology can help to address, can help to mitigate, can help to inform as well. That might mean critical infrastructure challenges that we face. It might mean issues of equity or inequity that we face that have become, I think, very apparent over the last several years, inequity to access to health care or education. And similarly issues around the climate and the changing climate that we face. And so as you think about the socioeconomic challenges as you think about those critical technology areas, there’s also a third dimension, which is being able to engage the full breadth of talent that exists all across the country. Many would argue that America’s unique asset is the diversity that we have all across this country. And similarly, when you think about those tech areas, it’s important that the individuals designing the technologies have the same demography as the individuals who are using those technologies in every bit as much as if you think about the socioeconomic challenges that I talked about.

They take on different forms depending on which part of the country you might be in at any given time. And so those three factors, critical technologies that are, you know, right for global competition, the socioeconomic challenges that we face, as well as how do we harness the talent that exists all across the country, the diverse talent that exists all across the country. Those are sort of three key drivers that I think have led us to sort of an inflection point for the scientific enterprise and the value that the scientific enterprise can bring to the nation when it comes to accelerating tech development, accelerating the translation of technology to practice to society, and accelerating workforce development as well.

You know, a significant part of what we’re trying to do here in TIP is not just how do you bring. So I think of this as a little bit of a of a paradigm expansion. A lot of what NSF has done historically is fund great researchers, individuals, scientists, students and so forth. They generate great ideas, great new technologies that we then push to the market, we push to society to adopt. Here we want to bring society to the table. Let’s bring the users, the beneficiaries, the consumers of the research that we’re enabling. Let’s have them come to the table and motivate and inspire the use cases that drive the research agenda. And let’s let them have them because they’re at the table from the start, they’re co designing co creating solutions, they’re helping to pilot and prototype solutions.

They now are excited to draw out the research results so it’s not just technology push, but tip is more about that use inspired research and that market pull, or that market demand that we really want to enable. And when you do that work. It’s critically important that we also think about workforce development. How do you train the next generation of talent. How do you train the current generation of talent to pivot into high wage, high quality jobs of the future as well. And so that is a key aspect of what we’re hoping to achieve with the tip directorate.

And I think all of that collectively defines this as in many ways as a as a generational opportunity that we must cease because it won’t come along anytime soon again. Yeah, I think that’s really key. I mean, for us, that’s really what innovation is all about. You know, it’s not just technology for the sake of creating technology, but innovation is about making change. And sometimes technology can be disruptive in positive ways and disruptive and not so positive ways and really love hearing about that, especially when we’re funding and we’re supporting the development of folks who are working on some of this cutting edge technology.

[GovFuture] So really, actually, this brings us to our sort of final question here that sort of sums up a lot of what we’ve been talking about, which has to do with innovation and where you see or where you hope to see the future of technology and innovation in the government and public sector, just from whatever your opinions are. I would love to our audience to hear that.

[Erwin Gianchandani] Yeah, around what you know, I’ll say the following, I think that when it comes to tech and innovation in the government, in many ways now is the moment, right? I have, like I said, been in the government for more than a decade now. And the amount of collaboration, the amount of engagement that we’re seeing across different government agencies, across departments and offices, when it comes to enabling regional innovation. So we have the regional innovation engines, we’ve had many a conversation with our colleagues at the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration about their regional innovation and technology hubs. And the symbiosis that we see between the engines and the tech hubs and how there’s a really good, healthy, robust interplay between these that we envision as we launch these programs and as we launch these efforts. And so I think that the opportunity is now in terms of being able to work collaboratively, being able to learn lessons from the technology that we are supporting the investment of, you know, the innovation in these technology areas, how do we bring these technologies to bear in the government? You saw that with some of the data analytics work that Grace has done with the concept outlines Explorer dashboard.

As a matter of fact, pretty soon here, we will be launching the first round of awards for the NSF engines program. And we expect another dashboard to be made available to help folks be able to realize what is it that we are funding, how we’re funding it and what the potential impact of that investment could be. So I think that, you know, I can’t stress it enough for all the talk of, you know, sometimes Washington being a large bureaucracy. I think that there are folks here who really care a lot about innovating in the government, innovating how the government does what it does.

And by translation, then innovating out in all across America and every corner of this country to really be able to drive the frontiers of science, technology, engineering, mathematics to be able to drive societal and economic growth for the long term. Yeah, well, that was wonderful. And we’ll definitely have to, you know, get updated on that new dashboard for sure.

[GovFuture] What you guys are doing is really great. You know, we love that demo. Like I said, it really kind of showed this hands on approach about how things were so approachable.

And it is a way to be inclusive, right, of the entire nation, not just certain regions. So we want to thank you so much for joining this podcast and your insights. And I know that our listeners will enjoy this just as much as we did. We always have such a wonderful time talking to you. So thank you so much, Erwin.

[Erwin Gianchandani] Well, likewise. Great talking to you both as always. Thanks for having me on. And I look forward to continuing the conversation down the road as well.

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