NSF official wants to catalyze research partnerships to tackle pressing societal challenges

Erwin Gianchandani, assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s newly-formed Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, says TIP is meant to accelerate research by encouraging researchers to engage in creative partnerships and to always consider the societal impact of their research. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Erwin Gianchandani, assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s recently-formed Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, and TIP program director Rebecca Shearman want to change the way research partnerships work.

That’s the goal of TIP, and it was the topic of a fireside chat, hosted at Northeastern University and moderated by Elizabeth Mynatt, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Science, on Thursday night. 

TIP is funded through the CHIPS and Science Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that aims to jumpstart domestic microprocessor production and boost scientific and technology research. For the NSF, TIP is a way to foster new kinds of partnerships, between university researchers, industry leaders and community members, in order to tackle pressing societal challenges such as climate change, equity and critical infrastructure.

Dr. Erwin Gianchandani, assistant director of the NSF's new TIP directorate, sits in front of a audience to talk about TIP’s goals.
Erwin Gianchandani, assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s newly-formed Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, spoke during a fireside chat held in ISEC. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“There are a number of instances where we know we are faced with intense societal and economic challenges today, where this ecosystem of bringing together not just academia but academia and industry and local community, this melting pot that we want to create, is critical for us to really have impact in those areas to an extent that will change the narrative,” says Gianchandani, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

TIP is a way to create opportunities for connection that can lead to groundbreaking research, but that connection must go beyond traditional academic-industry partnerships in order to make real change, Gianchandani says. When looking at robotic-human interaction, Gianchandani encourages researchers to connect with labor representatives and other groups that will be impacted by emerging technologies.

TIP is also a way to shift the NSF’s approach to research, which has historically been focused on what Gianchandani calls “foundational research.” By connecting the solid foundational work that NSF has always supported with use-inspired work focused on practical application, Gianchandani hopes to create a virtuous cycle that can help drive innovation in the U.S.

“Here’s an opportunity for us, still within our mission space, to put a spotlight on the more use-inspired investments and think about the symbiosis that exists between foundational bleeding into use-inspired [research,] and use-inspired fueling more foundational work,” Gianchandani says.

It was not lost on Gianchandani and Shearman how TIP’s mission mirrors Northeastern’s approach to research. Prior to the Q&A, Gianchandani and Shearman had a chance to tour Northeastern’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. 

“In the labs that I saw today, you had people who were doing much more foundational research right near people who are in physics, who are in mathematics, who are also sitting with people who are doing clinical work,” Shearman says. 

Many of TIP’s programs, like Enabling Partnerships to Increase Innovation Capacity (EPIIC) and Regional Innovation Engines, are designed to assist researchers through these kinds of creative partnership opportunities, all with a focus on equity. That means considering the full scope of research.

“Not everyone’s going to be a Silicon Valley,” Gianchandani says. “We want to get folks to the next level relative to where they are starting within their region or within their community. That situational awareness is also critically important.”

“Northeastern will follow NSF’s encouragement and pursue research partnerships not just with industry—but with minority serving institutions and smaller, rural universities,” says Jack Cline, vice president for federal relations at Northeastern. “As NSF Director Sethuraman ‘Panch’ Panchanathan says regularly, as a research community, we must address the ‘missing millions’ and support minority STEM students and expand prosperity throughout our nation. We’re all in this together.”

Cline says the Engines program, which is designed to cultivate regional innovation ecosystems throughout the U.S., is a place where Northeastern, with its 13 U.S. campuses, is uniquely equipped to meet TIP’s mission.

“These ‘engines’ will address major scientific-technological goals while solving societal challenges,” Cline says. “An important NSF focus when awarding these engines will be geographic diversity. NSF is committed to ensuring that promising research is supported in all 50 states. We must acknowledge that fancy ZIP codes haven’t cornered the market on great ideas.”

By expanding the scope of where and how research is being done and who it is being done by, Gianchandani hopes to achieve his “wildest dream.”

“I want every single person in this country … to be able to have an opportunity to contribute to changing the way of our lives,” he says. “I think about the talent out there that’s eager to become an entrepreneur and create their own startup or create their own technology that we haven’t imagined before. That is something that, not single-handedly, TIP can be a catalyst for, and that’s the kind of thing we should really aspire to.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.