The next administration should rapidly create new Focused Research Organizations (FROs) to tackle scientific and technological challenges that cannot be efficiently addressed by standard organizational structures including academia, industry, National Laboratories, or Advanced Research Project Agencies (e.g., DARPA). FROs would be independent from existing universities or labs, focused on a single basic science or technology problem, and organized similarly to a startup. FROs would fill a key structural gap in our nation’s research and development (R&D) system, enabling major advances in areas that (i) require levels of coordinated engineering or system-building inaccessible to academia, (ii) benefit society broadly in ways that industry cannot rapidly monetize, and (iii) harbor opportunities for acceleration through innovative new technologies and processes. Each FRO would produce a well-defined tool or technology, a key scientific dataset, or a refined process or resource that would dramatically boost progress and help maintain U.S. competitiveness in a broad technological or scientific field. Relevant areas for FROs include brain mapping, climate technology, biological tool and reagent development, data generation for preventative medicine, novel antibiotic development, nanofabrication, and more.
Challenge and Opportunity
The U.S. government is ill-equipped to fund R&D projects that require tight coordination and teamwork to create public goods. The majority of government-funded research outside of the defense sphere—including research funded through the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E)—is outsourced to externalized collaborations of university labs and/or commercial organizations. However, the academic reward structure favors individual credit and discourages systematic teamwork. Commercial incentives encourage teamwork but discourage the production of public goods. As a result, the United States is falling behind in key areas like microfabrication and human genomics to countries with greater abilities to centralize and accelerate focused research.
The solution is to enable the U.S. government to fund centralized research programs, termed Focused Research Organizations (FROs), to address well-defined challenges that require scale and coordination but that are not immediately profitable. FROs would be stand-alone “moonshot organizations” insulated from both academic and commercial incentive structures. FROs would be organized like startups, but they would pursue well-defined R&D goals in the public interest and would be accountable to their funding organizations rather than to shareholders. Each FRO would strive to accelerate a key R&D area via “multiplier effects” (such as dramatically reducing the cost of collecting critical scientific data), provide the United States with a decisive competitive advantage in that area, and de-risk substantial follow-on investment from the private and/or public sectors. Some FROs would lay the engineering foundations for subsequent government investment in programs similar in scope to the Human Genome Project.
Individual FRO-like entities have previously been established only occasionally and through disparate mechanisms. Most recently, the National Quantum Initiative Act established five FRO- like centers within National Labs, each funded at $25 million per year, to pursue advances in quantum-information technology. However, there is no systematic, agile process for the conception and creation of similar centers in a variety of fields. Establishing any FRO-like entity currently requires Congressional approval—an onerous and time-consuming process.
We expect FROs to attract broad bipartisan and popular support due to their potential to spawn new industries and establish American leadership. Precedent supports this expectation. The National Quantum Initiative Act, for instance, was co-sponsored by the bipartisan coalition of Lamar Alexander (R-TX), John Thune (R-SD), and Bill Nelson (D-FL), and passed the Senate by unanimous consent.
Plan of Action
The next administration should support the rapid establishment of 16 new FROs: four per year for the next four years, totaling 16 FROs. The next administration should work with Congress to secure new funding for these FROs, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should oversee the development of a cross-disciplinary program to conceive and launch the FROs.
The total program budget for 16 FROs should be roughly $1 billion, or about $25–75 million per FRO allocated over 5-7 years (e.g., roughly $5–15 million per FRO per year). This is roughly 10 times the funding level accessible via a typical academic grant, yet comparable in cost to a DARPA project or to a philanthropic project like the Allen Institute’s Mouse Brain Atlas (~$55 million). Moreover, this level of funding is similar to the funding needed by a Series A/B “hard tech” startup to achieve proof of concept for a new technology prior to commercialization. Funding should be authorized for the FRO program as whole rather than for each individual component. This will enable the program to move quickly and independently, in similar fashion to DARPA. Funding the program as a whole will also support cross-disciplinary FROs and FRO initiatives. Agencies such as NIH, NSF, the Department of Energy (DOE), the various ARPAs, or the “Directorate for Technology” proposed in the Endless Frontier Act could be involved in the FRO program and could solicit or put forward specific FROs.1
FRO organization and operations should be designed to make FROs as agile, flexible, and self- directed as possible. Each FRO should exist independent of existing organizations such as National Laboratories or labs at other government agencies and academic institutions. Each FRO would be run by a CEO/CTO and staffed by a centralized, startup-like team of well-trained professionals sourced from both industry and academia. This personnel structure will enable tighter alignment of team incentives and focus than would an externalized collaborative research program that uses existing entities (e.g., universities) as performers. This structure will also enable tighter alignment of incentives and focus than would a DARPA-like externalized effort coordinated by a single program manager (although some FROs could be created as an outcome or second stage of DARPA-like programs). Generally, FROs would rent commercial real estate for operations. In rare cases it may be appropriate for FROs to use National Lab facilities. Pay structure in FROs should be flexible to allow top talent to be recruited.
FROs should be expressly time-bound and outcome driven in order to prevent mission creep and organizational aging. This will require clear and pre-defined end-points/exits. As an FRO sunsets, stakeholders in that FRO’s outputs should be convened to maximize output deployment and uptake. Intellectual property should be out-licensed or released publicly for similar reasons. Transition support should be provided to outgoing FRO employees. Follow-on from FROs could include formation and/or incubation of new companies, larger public-sector projects, and/or creation of facilities designed to host and maintain FRO outputs (e.g., datasets or tools).
FROs should pursue specific goals that, if achieved, will dramatically increase the R&D capacity and/or technological capabilities of the United States in a given field. To preserve the FRO program’s ability to pursue specific, focused innovation objectives, FROs would operate for defined time periods and would not ordinarily be renewed. Renewal would only be permitted in exceptional cases in which an FRO proves that an extension of that FRO would be as impactful as the initial investment. More frequently, we expect that an FRO might serve as proof of concept for a project or initiative that could then be separately pursued through an act of Congress or through a public-private partnership. All new FROs should meet following two criteria:
- FROs should be transformative. While FROs might occasionally integrate existing methods to directly produce a new dataset or clinical/scientific outcome, FROs should generally focus on developing transformative new technologies, systems, or processes. These capabilities should reduce the cost and/or increase the speed and reliability of subsequent scientific, clinical, or other downstream efforts, substantially increasing the rate of overall science and technology development in the United States.
- FROs should be focused. Each FRO should be established with a clear, goal-oriented purpose. FROs should driven by quantitative metrics and/or concrete design goals and should be limited in scope and duration. Serendipitous discoveries made during the course of FRO research that are outside of the mission scope should be shared freely with external researchers for follow-up. Though we expect FROs to work closely with universities, FROs must not become subject to academic incentives and must avoid mission creep. Although an FRO may maintain external (e.g., academic) advisors and consultants, core staff must be appointed full-time at the FRO.
To ensure efficient and decisive selection and oversight of FROs, a dedicated and innovative program manager—rather than a committee of peer reviewers—could be recruited to help drive the conception, selection and formation of a small number of FROs on the government side. DARPA similarly appoints program managers instead of committees to enable the embrace of visionary or divergent perspectives. Program managers should be willing to take risks on “moonshot” projects for which there is not a consensus on feasibility or likely value.
Frequently Asked Questions
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