Executive Order on Domestic Manufacturing Warrants Optimism, but Time Will Tell

Mike Waring
AUTM Advocacy and Alliances Coordinator

A few years ago, a well-meaning lawmaker suggested adding language to National Science Foundation (NSF) legislation that would require each NSF grant recipient to lay out a plan for commercializing each discovery that would come out of the research being funded. To the average person, this might sound like a great idea. Unfortunately, as we know, science does not work that way. 
We cannot predetermine the outcome of research. We perhaps have an inkling of what might be discovered, but there is no assurance it will pan out, much less lead to commercialization. In science, there are often many failures before we find the answer we are seeking. And sometimes, along the way, we end up making discoveries that we had no intention of finding. Such is the serendipitous nature of scientific inquiry.
A similar well-intentioned optimism might have been at work in drafting the Executive Order that the Biden Administration issued in late July. It is designed ostensibly to increase domestic manufacturing of discoveries made here in the US—a laudable goal and one that AUTM Members strive to achieve daily. The Bayh-Dole legislation passed in 1980 specifically requires that discoveries be made here in America wherever possible.
Unfortunately, it is not possible for the US government to wave a magic wand and make such things happen. It can encourage and actively fund such efforts, as it did last year with the CHIPS and Science Act, where specific funding was aimed at enhancing the domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry.

However, there are any number of other industries where the US simply does not have the domestic infrastructure required to develop scientific inventions. In such cases, innovative research institutions need the flexibility to find overseas partners for development, as long as they take steps to ensure that important national security technologies do not end up in the wrong hands.
The new Order does require all funding agencies to use an updated version of iEdison to report data related to manufacturing of funded discoveries, an excellent development to assist innovation. It also puts the onus on agencies to address domestic manufacturing waiver requests in a timelier manner.  An AUTM survey earlier this year pointed out that many agencies take forever to respond to such requests or simply to not reply at all—which clearly does not help technology transfer. Hopefully the new Order will affect that trend in a positive way.
While we remain cautiously optimistic about the intent of the new Order, we will want to stay vigilant about how it is put into practice. All of us – AUTM Members, the government, and American taxpayers – want more of our American-made discoveries to be “built in America.” But placing unworkable restrictions on how we do that in tech sectors where our nation has no real manufacturing base is not the way forward.  
AUTM leadership looks forward to working with the Administration and our investment partners to build on the great foundation for American innovation that is already in place at university and nonprofit research institutions across our nation. This collaboration will be key to increasing domestic manufacturing while still moving more discoveries of all kinds to the marketplace where they can benefit society.