Calm amid the stormStrong future for independent research

Published 25 February 2009

Despite the current economic downturn, independent research organizations remain optimistic; many areas of research and development — chief among them energy security, energy conversion, and defense — already see bipartisan support for increased funding

For the tenth consecutive year, the editors of R&D Magazine interviewed the CEOs of the leading independent R&D laboratories in the United States to determine the challenges and opportunities they face. The following is a summary of their responses to the first questions (our readers would be interested in the entire interview, and the insightful responses offered by those on the forefront of scientific research in the United States).

Question: Do you expect any changes in your lab with the 2009 change in U.S. leadership?

  • Answers:
    The Industrial Research Institute (IRI), Arlington, Virginia, is particularly hopeful about the new administration. “IRI was thrilled to see a Nobel Laureate, Steven Chu, former head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an IRI member lab, named as Secretary of the Department of Energy,” says Edward Bernstein, president of IRI. “We are optimistic that relations between the Executive Branch and the scientific community will be much stronger and more positive than they were during the previous administration. We understand that the economy will be a factor in many policy decisions, but the role of R&D in creating a sustained recovery cannot be ignored. We are hopeful this administration will work with the scientific community toward that end.”
  • Under new U.S. leadership in 2009, we expect increased emphasis on energy and environmental initiatives related to efficiency, energy security, and carbon emissions reduction,” says David Carroll, president and CEO of Gas Technology Institute (GTI), Des Plaines, Illinois. “GTI is well-positioned with active projects in each of these areas, and we anticipate increased R&D activities and partnering with federal and state agencies in achieving the goals of these initiatives.”
  • Midwest Research Institute (MRI), Kansas City, Missouri, is also optimistic. “Fortunately, MRI conducts research in areas that are more bi-partisan in nature — energy and defense — and as long as these sectors remain national priorities, there isn’t as much fluctuation in the work at our labs with a change in administration,” says James L. Spigarelli, president and CEO of MRI. “However, each administration does change the emphasis within the priorities, and we can expect some change in that regard. In today’s environment, we see the financial crisis as the more immediate driver behind change.”
  • Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio, Texas, is similarly well-positioned. “Because we traditionally maintain about an even split between our work for clients in government and industry, we are well positioned to respond to new government-sponsored R&D initiatives,” says J. Dan Bates, president of SwRI. “In addition, we have built our capabilities over the years across a broad range of technologies, from structural and mechanical engineering to software and intelligent systems. If the new administration wants to invest in infrastructure, we are prepared to support that. If there’s new direction toward alternative energy, we can support it. If it’s smarter, more efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles, we can support those, too.”
  • Other labs will need to adapt to the new administration priorities. “Since Draper’s core business is sponsored research from the government, principally Department of Defense and NASA, we expect that the new administration will have new priorities to which we will need to adapt,” says James D. Shields, president and CEO of Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Cambridge, Massachusetts. “While the global economic crisis may slow the growth of the defense budget, the country will still face significant security challenges which Draper should be able to address. There is also uncertainty about the future direction of NASA relative to the Exploration Initiative.”