Techies in Texas eye research backing from Washington

AUSTIN, Texas--Aiming to reinvigorate the local technology economy here, technology industry experts and academics are looking to the federal government for assistance to boost basic research and commercialization of advanced applications.

Speaking on Friday before a regional forum organized by the U.S. branch of the Institute Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), panels of University of Texas researchers and local tech leaders argued that at a time when companies have fewer resources, federal agencies are well positioned to boost support of basic science and tech research, and to increase efforts to transfer that research into new technology products and applications.

With more tech manufacturing jobs being moved abroad and leaving U.S. engineers and workers unemployed, leaders in Austin aim to help cultivate new technologies to boost the economy. Consequently, private- and public-sector organizations are focused on ways to not only increase science and technology research but also to create more outlets for converting that high-end research into tangible products, much the way commercialization of the Internet created new industries such as online commerce.

Panelists at the conference lauded moves by policymakers to boost research and development funding, including recent efforts by Congress to pass legislation that would inject billions of dollars into nanotechnology research over the next several years. But similar funding and leadership is necessary in other industry sectors, they said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) offers one good R&D model that the government can replicate, said Juan Sanchez, vice president for research at the University of Texas at Austin. DARPA is "highly focused" and invests in projects that will produce technologies aimed at solving specific problems identified by the Defense Department, he said.

UT professor Theodore Rappaport, who heads the university's research group on wireless networking and communications, argued that the nation is on the cusp of major benefits from wireless technologies and applications. But there needs to be more leadership from federal government to fund research and attract competent professionals to the field in order to develop breakthrough technologies and applications.

Research funded by DARPA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1960s, for example, helped lay the foundation for developing the Internet. "My concern is that there is no real leadership from the government" now like there was then, he said.

Venture capitalists and states are not making those kinds of commitments, Rappaport said. He said agencies like DARPA and the FCC will have to create a focus in telecommunications to jumpstart the economy through wireless, high-speed Internet service, for example.

Even as lawmakers seek to redouble support of R&D funding through institutions like NSF, there is ongoing debate over the role government should play in research. Some policymakers in Washington consider funding for science research akin to "corporate welfare," Sanchez said.

Still, he argued that government support of research and development helps fund long-term projects that may yield future breakthroughs and ultimately the next economic boom.