Chemical industry report calls for research culture makeover

Dec. 23, 2003 — Sometimes the fiercest of competitors can be the closest of allies — that is, when they have something in common.

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Apparently, that’s the case with the biggest companies in the U.S. chemicals industry. And what they have in common is the promise of nanotechnology, the threat of foreign competition and a tough message for academia.

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Earlier this month, an industry consortium released a 92-page nanomaterials road map (PDF, 3.75 MB) designed to help the U.S. chemicals industry commercialize nanotech.

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The idea is to help companies move faster by eliminating redundancies — the precompetitive work that everybody needs to do but from which no one gains any competitive advantage. The result, the consortium says, will give the United States an edge — or, perhaps more correctly, help it keep its edge — in an increasingly global market for chemicals and specialty materials.

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“Every new science goes through a very ripe discovery phase,” said Sue Babinec, a Dow Chemical Co. scientist on the road map’s 13-person steering committee. “There comes a point where you say, ‘Let’s get more organized.’ “

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The plan, officially titled “Chemical Industry R&D Roadmap for Nanomaterials By Design: From Fundamentals to Function,” says that products would move to market sooner if the industry set up a standard system of understanding the basic properties of nanomaterials. The report urges that standard techniques be developed in fundamentals like materials characterization and software modeling, as well as compiling a knowledge base of nanomaterials themselves. If the U.S. chemicals industry will be more competitive in the coming years if it collaborates on these efforts, the report says.

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The U.S. system, itself, also comes under “constructive criticism” in the road map.

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“The road map is really saying that the way that research is funded has to change,” said Melissa Eichner of Energetics Inc., who coordinated the effort. “That’s the ripple that this road map is going to make in the water.”

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The report also calls into the question the intellectual property policies of U.S. universities, which it says “put American companies at a competitive disadvantage.” The report does not come right out and say it, but Babinec and Bill Rafaniello, another Dow scientist on the steering committee, told Small Times that it takes much more time and paperwork to deal with U.S. universities than it does abroad, and that the terms of domestic deals are worse. Other company representatives expressed similar concerns. As a result, they said, firms often choose to work with foreign academics.

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The report calls for a “culture change” in information sharing, including annual policy reviews, revised technology transfer protocols and a nanotechnology working group within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as well as additional formal discussions on how to adapt the system.

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The road map was prepared by the Chemical Industry Vision2020 Technology Partnership and was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.

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Even though the road map was originally solicited by the government in 2002, its future use by the government is not guaranteed. “We have suggestions on how much money to spend” and how to spend it, Babinec said. But that’s all they are: suggestions. It remains up to government agencies to decide whether to use them.

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The industry is planning a follow-up effort. The next step, according to steering committee Chairman Jack Solomon, of Praxair Inc., will be creation of a separate project composed largely of the same companies but with a separate steering group. The group plans to produce an economic opportunity report, and educate corporations and government organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology about the report’s conclusions. Solomon said it should take at least six months to produce the opportunity report.

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Editor’s Note: Small Times magazine, in its January/February cover story, will report on how the Vision2020 nanomaterials road map is one collaboration effort among many taking place in the chemical industry. Industry heavyweights are also forging deals with startups and labs. These relationships, executives say, are as important to the industry’s success as the technology itself.

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