Secret Squirrels Go To Market – Tech Transfer Cold War Style

The DOE’s Nevada Test Site (NTS) and the Pacific Programs were amazing places to work because they supported the DOE National Laboratories who employed some of the world’sscreen-shot-2012-08-23-95454-am top scientists who, in turn, created and fielded stunning, ground-breaking experiments to prove their hypotheses or theories. Fielding experiments meant that creative engineers and technicians in the field developed all manner of gadgets, gizmos, widgets, and whirligigs to turn the science experiments and ideas into reality. That collection of secret squirrel ‘stuff’ made me positively giddy with ideas of potential application in the private sector.

Toward the end of the Cold War (1947-1991), I became aware of DOE’s push to take btc3technologies to market. Huge dollar amounts were invested in training programs for the Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) to re-align both DOE staff and the contractors. I was gleefully imagining a huge searchable database filled with goodies that could be picked up by brilliant eighteen year old entrepreneurs and pressed into service in support of a whole new market product. In my wee mind I could see the factories already humming, people working and goods leaping into the closest marketplace. I was wrong but, then again, I am biased.

I believe in the free market economy. I believe the free market is the economy of peace. The entire concept of free markets is corrupted by mythical monsters and images generated by people who are confused. The images portray women and children chained to work benches or blown apart making bombs in locked factories and only occur when greedy people manipulate or buy special government protection for their products or services.

A variation on the theme occurs when a government runs its own factories and business17803347 community. An excellent example of this type of corporate protection happened just last month, March 2013. Monsanto, a purveyor of genetically modified crops, received protection from litigation through a provision buried 78 pages into H.R. 933, a continuing resolution spending bill. It passed through the entire congressional process smartly and was signed into law by the president. In the U.S, we do not live in a free market economy, we never have. Very early on in U.S. history we came close for a brief time, though. Today we still bask in the fading light of that time.

What is the free market and why it matters was the subject of a lecture by Thomas Wood,tom-woods-the-attractiveness-of-austrian-economics senior fellow in history at the Mises Institute, given at Auburn in April 2010. As he introduced the topic, Dr. Wood gave the best definition of the free market economy I have ever heard. He stated that the free market economy is the sum total of voluntary exchanges bounded by private property rights. Violence, or the threat of violence, occurs when there is interference with either the voluntary exchanges or the private property rights. It was from this perspective that I imagined DOE’s ‘stuff’ of science would enter the marketplace. Instead a hide-bound bureaucracy ensued. While DOE is at fault for the bureaucracy, they are not to blame. The hallmark of any good bureaucracy is the inability to assign accountability. DOE was forced to develop the technology transfer programs within the confines of tens of thousands of pages of regulation written by others on such obtuse topics as use of appropriated dollars as well as the adherence to other agency regulations; EPA and DOL regulation comes quickly to mind. Technology transfer was made manifest in the Bayh-Dole and Stevenson-Wydler legislation in 1980 and, in 1989, the National Competitiveness Technology Transfer Act established technology transfer activities as a mission of the DOE national laboratories. DOE did the best it could with the process but it was and is still a beast that is a full time employment opportunity for lawyers.

Just in case you ever need to know, say for a game of Trivial Pursuit, there are seventeen DOE laboratories and DOE remains the Nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. During the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, it was decided that some research is best conducted at the federal level so the National Labs were formed. The outside story was that the private sector would never do science for science sake. The inside story was that some basic science needs to be kept in the federal government’s black box; not out in the open, sharing information, and chatting at the global water cooler like scientists are wont to do.

Today there are nine mechanisms for technology transfer to the private sector; CRADAs, work for others, licensing technology, publishing, material transfer, personnel exchanges, technical assistance, spin-outs, and user facilities. Understanding each one requires a law degree. In 2011, DOE claimed success in each area and over 14,000 Technology Transfer transactions[1]. The transactions included about 15,000 patents of which about 11,500 had been issued, about 3,500 active royalty bearing licenses, about 4,400 User Facility Agreements, and 264 CRADAs.

There can be no doubt that some of the technological advances made during the Cold War are making it to the private sector in spite of the disagreement among reasonable people about how it is being accomplished. The beloved millimeter wave holographic body scanner, batteries for electric vehicles, and ultrathin film solar technology using nanocrystal semiconductors provide us a few recognizable examples.

Scientists employed by the national labs, paid for by taxpayer dollars in a scientific toy-rich environment, can develop a technology then receive financial and other assistance to spin-out on their own to the private sector. Somehow this just isn’t right.

Politicians always have their collective hands out and they have advance knowledge of the technologies available for transfer. The tech transfer paths are smoothed for their friends and relatives. Remember DOE’s Secretary is and has always been a political appointee of whatever party is in power. This isn’t right, either.

The technology transfer process requires further examination and, perhaps in that examination, a return to the free market discussion. There is a better way to do this. I still like my first thought; a searchable database open to all.

Only very special groups with the right backing, credentials and funding can navigate the shoals of technology transfer, which leaves those brilliant young entrepreneurs in their garages, sometimes reinventing a wheel when they could be solving the world’s problems.



[1] Technology Transfer at DOE; Karina Edmonds, PhD; EPSCoR National Conference; October 26, 2011

2 thoughts on “Secret Squirrels Go To Market – Tech Transfer Cold War Style

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