Tech Transfer at NASA Glenn

When the final report on the cause of the explosion that destroyed the space shuttle (Columbia) was released last month, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced sweeping changes in the agency's management culture. Local leaders wondered what effect those changes might have on NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Just two years ago, Glenn was struggling to maintain funding in an atmosphere of agency wide budget cuts. A recent survey of NASA employees ranked Glenn last among space labs in leadership and performance. That sparked concerns that local efforts to capitalize on Glenn's research could be derailed in the new NASA. Director Don Campbell did his part to reassure the community that Glenn's role would not be diminished.

Don Campbell: We're looking ahead at new power and propulsion systems, we're looking ahead, not slowing down. Julian Earls, if he's here, he can take over and answer all the rest of your questions. (laughs)

But change is in the wind. On October 1st, Campbell will step down as chief at Glenn and pass the reins to deputy director Dr. Julian Earls. Earls holds a doctorate in radiation physics and has worked at Glenn for 35 years. He's held posts in business resource development, administration, and as deputy director of operations. Frank Samuel is one of many who believes Glenn's new leadership may signal a warming in the center's economic ties with Northeast Ohio. Samuel is science and technology advisor to Governor Bob Taft and a key figure in the governor's Third Frontier Initiative to reinvigorate Ohio's economy.

Frank Samuel: The kinds of research NASA has been known for - propulsion and communications - are likely to remain central to NASA's mission. Overall, Glenn projects are good. New leadership will capitalize on that. It will take good partnership form the local community, but I think it's there and ready to go to work.

Samuel's confidence arises from a new plan to improve the transfer of research and technology from Glenn to the local economy. For more than a decade, the Ohio Aerospace Council - comprised of local business and education leaders - has worked to stabilize funding for Glenn and promote the center's tech-transfer potential. This winter, the Council commissioned a study from Battelle to suggest ways Glenn could become an economic engine for the region. OAC president Luis Proenza, who heads the University of Akron, hopes the Battelle roadmap will provide new impetus to that effort.

Luis Proenza: Our community has not built as strong a series of ties with NASA Glenn as we might have or as other communities in which NASA facilities are located have done with their NASA centers. We're very excited about the results that are being proposed here.

Proenza says the plan's four-part strategy would generate new talent at local universities and facilitate the spin-off of Glenn's core research in propulsion, microgravity, and communications. Ultimately, says John Hairston, director of External Programs at Glenn, it would create a one-stop tech transfer center that could be funded as one of the governor's Third Frontier projects.

John Hairston: We have a national mission as our number one priority. But we have a secondary priority which is the welfare of the community where we exist. We need to do a better job of marketing ourselves.

But John Lewis says marketing alone won't improve Glenn's tech-transfer track record. The Cleveland lawyer and Ohio Aerospace Council founder says it's the local community's failure to capitalize on Glenn that has kept the region from attracting new businesses and jobs. But he admits that translating arcane scientific research into useable products is a tough sell.

John Lewis: Now that's far more easily said than done. We don't have an industry around here that's a perfect companion for Glenn. There are a fair number of people who've gone out to NASA Glenn and have concluded that there isn't a great deal of tech that's commercializable.

But local partnerships with NASA Glenn do exist. New bio-engineering projects with Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic have built on existing university partnerships in polymer and mircrogravity research. In the last year, Glenn's budget has actually increased by $150 million. Recent economic impact studies commissioned by Glenn show $42 million worth of research and industry investments in 2002 alone. But for those who still find it hard to believe in the promise of Glenn's potential, Lewis offers these words of advice. If NASA as an agency and Glenn as a research lab are going to survive, they must become more relevant to our national and regional economies. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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