Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Public infrastructure: the Spallation Neutron Source

Two colleagues and I had a great tour of Oak Ridge National Lab Friday, a very impressive facility that does a billion per year in science-based research. That's more than Clemson, USC, MUSC, the Savannah River National Lab, and the SC Research authority combined.

One of the crown jewels of ORNL is the The Spallation Neutron Source, which will accelerate atoms of hydrogen to 90 percent of the speed of light, strip off the electrons and then smash the protons into mercury to break neutrons free. This stream of neutrons can then to smashed into other materials to change their atomic structure, and thus their fundamental characteristics, such as strength, brittleness, etc. The Spallation Neutron Source cost a cool $1.4 billion, an investment no private concern is likely to make, and it will be a public facility opened to companies and universities that would like to use it in their research.

ORNL is a strong supporter of Tech 2020, an organization to foster high-impact companies spinning out of ORNL and the University of Tennessee in a systematic way. 56 companies have been spun out of Oak Ridge in recent years, and I saw a white board at Tech 2020 listing one with notes about the status and needs of each. That organization and focus was very impressive too.

The longer I am involved in developing an innovative economy, the more convinced I am that a public/private partnership is at the core of any successful strategy. The private sector needs to manage the crafting of technologies into products that customers find useful. But there is public infrastructure that is an essential foundation on which the private sector can work. In traditional industrial recruitment, this was roads and sewers and utilities. In an innovative economy, it is assets like the The Spallation Neutron Source and Tech 2020. Neither the public nor the private sector can create a highly innovative economy alone.

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