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Comment an axe with no nuance (Score 5, Insightful) 648

(first my disclaimers...) I'm a research scientist. I've worked in academia, for a government lab managing grants, and in private industry.

There are many good reasons to change the way science funding is done in the USA.

First, we all know here that there is a surplus of certain STEM labor, including a large number of the researchers (postdocs, grad students, etc.) funded by the government.

Second, there is a serious and long running lack of practical progress being made in science. By some metrics (# of degrees, # of papers), we are doing great, but by others (# of companies founded, return on investment, research efficiency) we are at a generational low-point.

Third, some practical STEM fields (i.e. medicine, manufacturing engineering) DO exhibit a labor shortage, and also rely on training programs largely outside the research grant driven model.

The budgets we're looking at in the government grant space are enormous. It doesn't seem that way to many researchers, but the annual NIH budget alone is about equal to all of the funding provided to all startup companies annually. There's a lot we can do with that, provided the right direction. NIH, for example, could be re-focused on grants for training medical doctors, PAs, nurses, etc., instead of researchers. Yes, that would slow research down, but it would also contribute significantly to lowering the cost of medical care, and it would be appropriate for the mission and people at the NIH. A mature approach to climate change might cut some climate research funding, but increase funding for faster roll-out of a power and transportation infrastructure free of fossil fuels. Surely such an infrastructure could be an obvious point of agreement between the right and the left; start the construction in coal country.

A thoughtful approach to science funding would encourage researchers to look beyond their next federal grant to other (private) funding sources, and would encourage (force) private funding sources to invest in transitional research. The UC pension system has been instrumental in fueling the startup economy for a long time by devoting 1% of it's money to funds investing in startup companies. If other groups did the same (... were forced to do the same...), we would increase the total amount of science funding by several orders of magnitude more than the total federal R&D budget. Prior to the 1990s, all large DoD contractors were required to spend 15% of their budget on R&D projects that were reviewed by government scientists to ensure they were actual R&D projects. Removing that requirement shut down a lot of very good industrial research programs. We learned then that most companies performing internal R&D can't compete with companies using subsidized academic R&D. That's an important lesson that the pharmaceutical industry is just now discovering, and it's an economic fact we need to fight. Reinstating requirements like minimum and audited internal R&D budgets for government contractors would also increase private spending on real research.

Not all research can use a "transition to private funding" model, so there is a need for continued blue sky research funding from the government. However, right now, we are saturated with the results of blue sky research and in serious need of support for transitional and applied research. As a nation, we are paying for this basic research, but we are not seeing the benefits of it. Some small amount is commercialized here, some is commercialized elsewhere, but a whole lot just gets forgotten. That's a waste, and it's stupid.

So basic research could be de-emphasized for a while, and non-government resources could be directed to lead to an overall increase in work and funding for researchers (while also delivering a profit... usually). That's another way of saying that a decrease in federal research funding could be done in a constructive way. We could even look at the labor market for cues as to whose graduate education we should be subsidizing. However, this is not what Trump is suggesting here... but it's nice to daydream about what an intelligent jobs-and-commerce science budget would actually look like.

Comment Re:R&D (Score 3, Interesting) 84

IBM certainly has a well-earned reputation of being the premier industrial research lab in nanotechnology, but they also have a well-earned reputation for keeping the technology at the grant and publication stage much longer than necessary.

IBM invented the STM, but it was about 15 years before someone else brought one to market. IBM invented carbon nanotube transistors, ran the premier group in CNT research for over 20 years, and then shut it down without attempting to develop a product.

This would be ok, but they've also sucked up a tremendous amount of grant money and investment targeting nanotech commercialization over the last 30 years without actually commercializing any of the technologies they've worked on.

I am a nanotechnology researcher. I know and greatly respect many researchers at IBM. It's disappointing that the company has decided not to participate in developing products using their technologies.

Comment Re:Easy way to fix this (Score 3, Informative) 337

UC Berkeley received $370 Million in federal grants (research dollars) last year. Of that $370 Million, $210.9 Million of those "research" dollars went to administrative costs and overhead (non-research, non-teaching activities). You're talking about an organization where people have an average salary above $200k with a guaranteed job for life. Don't cry for the universities, they're funded just fine. If they wanted to, they could have paid to do this right.

Comment Re:Risk Averse CEOs are holding us back (Score 1) 474

Yeah, that does work, and it's a good idea! But, it's very hard to scale. The challenge is finding a manufacturing technique that is cheap, will work across an entire wafer, has reasonable throughput, and has a low error rate. Surely, that's not too much to ask... Photolithography is very hard to compete with.

Comment Re:Risk Averse CEOs are holding us back (Score 4, Interesting) 474

The timeline for carbon electronics is really, really long, predating transistors and silicon by decades. Carbon based electronics has had more than enough R&D for us to understand the basic properties and scaling challenges. The proof of this is that there are commercial products out there using these materials, made in commercial fabs. You just don't hear about them, because they have very little to do with the digital world (right now). Typically, you'll find these products in sensors and analog components. The particular strengths of carbon based electronics are an ability to carry lots of current in small channels (this is not just about resistivity, but also relates to chemical stability and thermal conductivity), and an ability to integrate seamlessly with biological material (this was initially just about carbon-carbon chemistries, but has grown to also encompass superior integrations of electronics with living systems).

These are different kinds of transistors, and don't operate the way (digitally) MOSFET silicon transistors do.

Diamond is a wide bandgap semiconductor (that's physics for insulator). In special conditions, it can perform well, but those conditions (ranges for temperature, humidity, and field strength) are not practical for consumer devices. Doping diamond is possible, but very difficult, and it still results in a material that is a pretty good insulator. Sorry, it's going to be a lab toy for a long time.

Graphene is a zero-bandgap semiconductor. That means that it never turns off, it just has varying amounts of "on." It's got great numbers on paper (resistivity, mobility). Doping graphene is something immoral scientists talk about doing. The reality is that doping graphene creates a different material that lacks the speed and chemical stability of normal graphene. Your conduction mechanism changes, your gating mechanism changes, your noise sources change. It's a mess. Also, it's really easy to dope graphene on accident and lose your high-end performance. It's the newest material in this space, and the one least understood in the manufacturing realm (despite that, it forms the basis for the commercial product linked above, so obviously it's understood well enough).

You didn't mention carbon nanotubes, but I will, because what was the point of getting a PhD in carbon nanotube electronics if I can't talk about them on Slashdot?! Carbon nanotubes remain the unattainable holy grail of digital electronics. You can have it all: the speed of graphene, the on-off ratio of silicon, low power requirements... It's just that you almost need to assemble your circuit by hand. It's been >25 years we've been working with these materials, and we still don't know how to properly control where they go on a wafer (well, maybe these guys know). The problem is that nanotubes want to make a heterogeneous mixed metal-semiconductor plate of spaghetti on the wafer, when you want clean rows of uniform semiconductor. The best guys in the world at this are up to producing postage stamp sized patches in the middle of the wafer. So... there's some work to be done there before anyone starts designing a processor.

Comment Re:"borrow money to make it through the month" (Score 1) 805

Yeah, that's the way things used to be. As well, it was understood that it was more efficient to concentrate the talent all in one place, if possible. Return on investment, though, has been poor.

In the last year or two, the trend in startup funding has been toward "cockroaches." Those are companies that can survive and thrive in difficult economic times. Thrift has become trendy.

Comment Re:"borrow money to make it through the month" (Score 1) 805

I'm not sure you're making the argument you think you are. How are you going to convince people to move to the Bay Area? "The best" people are not there anymore or are trying to leave. That was the point of TFA. So, yeah, I agree with you. If you have to convince people to move to your location, you're doing it wrong. That's why you shouldn't be in the Bay Area.

Austin, New York, San Diego, Boston, Washington DC, all are reasonable places to find the people you need to start a technology company.

Comment Re:"borrow money to make it through the month" (Score 3, Interesting) 805

Yeah, I'm going to echo some of the other comments back to you, it's stupid to decide to live in the Bay Area in the first place. You yourself moved to Austin, which is a great idea.

I had a startup company in the Bay Area for about a year, discovered the financial black hole that is Bay Area housing, and moved to San Diego as soon as I could. I own a 3 bedroom house here for the same cost as a one room studio in monthly rent in the Bay Area. Two of my employees bought houses last year as well. I have easy access to Bay Area VCs, it takes me 3 hours to get from my door to the door of any VC in the Bay Area, and there are flights hourly (at least).

So why would you base yourself or base your company in the Bay Area? It's a bad idea. As an employer or an investor, you're wasting money paying people bigger salaries than you need to, and the quality of life is crummy. Investors who want you to base in the Bay Area are not looking out for the health of the business, and should be avoided. Anyone working in the Bay Area needs to understand that their location is no longer an asset, it's a liability.

Comment Re:definitions? (Score 5, Interesting) 266

It's interesting to read the background on this. It's really about warranties.

Federal law is that a company can't insist that you use a particular vendor for repair or servicing to maintain a warranty. Now, that's unusual to think about because that's not what we're used to seeing in reality.

The reality is that if opening or servicing the electronics is so convoluted and difficult that damage is nearly certain when anyone without training opens it, then the warranty is voided by that damage. The training materials and tooling that are used by companies to train their own people in how to properly repair the electronics without damage would be made available to consumers in "right to repair" legislation.

If a company decides to make something that cannot be repaired... well, ok. It may be that laws like this simply push manufacturers to shut down their internal repair groups and stop supporting any warranty or repair at all.

Comment Re:What does Apple get? - Stability, sanity, (Score 1) 198

This is a nice textbook version of what a board should do, but this is not nearly all of what boards do. It's also a very simplified version of what went wrong at Nokia, which started well before Elop (he historically terrible anyway).

Yes, you need the board to give advice and help steer a company, but there are a LOT of other ways you can get that advice. You have a limited number of board seats to fill, so each seat necessarily does more than just give advice. The strategy of how to approach these various technical and business challenges is being developed and vetted by different people than the board.

Each board member is there to also do something else such as provide voting support for management or certain investors, provide important connections, provide credibility that would otherwise be lacking, etc. Selecting the CEO of the company is going to fall to a small subset of the board with experience in that area (not Gore's strength). It is normal to see politicians on boards, particularly when company strategy depends significantly on government actions.

From one point of view, it is... disappointing that politicians are so highly compensated to represent companies. That's probably due to the mythology we have built around our greatest politicians.

From another point of view, there are a very limited set of people who can provide the kind of insight into the way government works, and the kind of credibility in interactions with the government that Al Gore can provide. There is real value in those skills, and it seems there are not many people who compete at Gore's level. Logically, we should want our companies and our government to work well together and understand each other.

Comment what is a CEO's job? (Score 1) 181

There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about what a CEO's job is (among CEOs, even).

Done properly, a CEO is not "the boss," but simply the primary interface between investors (board of directors) and management (the people actually running the company). Often, a CEO will take on more of an investor or manager role depending on the size of the company and the quirks of the individuals involved. This can lead to trouble though. Knowing who to support and when in the perennial struggle between management and investors is the key to being a good CEO.

I think the idea of the individual CEO as successful benevolent dictator is a myth. You may know some famous CEOs who seem like supermen (i.e. Musk, Gates, Jobs), but there are always teams of people with more power and authority in their companies that provide vision, execution, discipline, financing... whatever is lacking.

The company from TFA is employee owned and focused on providing consulting services. In that situation, not having a CEO makes sense. All of the employees are manager/investors and have very similar goals for the company. They're not growth oriented or VC backed. Why have a CEO?

Comment Re:Good on him (Score 2) 226

Almost agree with you here. Basic research funding is very high compared to the funding for commercializing that research. Government run basic research funding in USA is larger than the combined amount of Angel and VC funding, despite commercialization being more expensive per project.

I'm a scientist, and there is a huge backlog of great ideas across many disciplines. Per capita, we start fewer businesses now than at any point in the last 30+ years.

The larger investment community is addicted to easy wins based solely on scale and low technical risk development (i.e. software). Musk is showing that there's still profit for new hardware plays, even with difficult development.

Comment Re:Well, IMHO... (Score 1) 70

Generally, this is the first argument I make with universities patenting inventions developed while grant funded (grants almost always include a clause for government ownership of IP, and it is almost always ignored).

However, Broad is largely privately funded. While they do get a lot of government money, they also have received over $700 Million in donations. It's that private money that allowed this (the expedited, well written patent filing) to happen.

We all may grind our teeth at granting a valuable patent to a place where 12 very well connected people control a billion dollar research budget heavily subsidized by the government, but, a well written patent with clear ownership will greatly help this technology actually make it out of the twisted halls of academia and into some form the rest of us can use. Most academic patents are garbage that just make commercialization more difficult.

Comment Re:I'm a lawyer (Score 1) 369

You picked three professions (law, medicine, and accounting) that are at root about recognizing patterns and comparing those patterns to copious amounts of regulation and established data.

You don't think we're on the verge of automating this?! There are software packages for law, medicine, and accounting that already claim to automate most of these job functions.

I agree that there are parts of law practice (trust, leveraging a social network, intimidation, client control) that robots will not easily replace. When robot lawyers become available, we will have an explosion of frivolous lawsuits. There are plenty of jokes and grumbling about lawyers, but generally your job is to prevent lawsuits, even if your client doesn't understand that.

I'm a scientist. I try to find places where established knowledge and understanding is wrong, despite the existing data. When computers replace me, then we're pretty much obsolete as a species.

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