Erwin Gianchandani Plans to Forge Expanded Network to Ensure the United States Leads in Global Competitiveness

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In March, the U.S. National Science Foundation established the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships  — NSF's first in more than 30 years — and selected University of Virginia biomedical engineering and computer science alumnus Erwin Gianchandani to lead the new directorate as an assistant director.

Gianchandani intends to create stronger ties between research, manufacturing and the marketplace across the nation to develop and scale key technology areas such as advanced manufacturing, advanced materials, advanced wireless, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum information science and semiconductors and microelectronics.

Congress has identified these areas as important for ensuring the United States remains a world leader in innovative technology and for addressing societal and economic challenges.

For more than a year before being appointed head of the new directorate, Gianchandani served as a senior advisor to NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan to develop the vision, strategy and execution plan for the new directorate. Before his senior advisor position with Panchanathan, he served as the NSF deputy assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering for six years, twice serving as acting assistant director. While helping to lead that directorate, Gianchandani helped launch several new investments, including the platforms for advanced wireless research, the smart and connected communities program, the Civic Innovation Challenge, and National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. He also served as co-chair of the National AI Research Resource Task Force together with the White House Office of Science and Technology.

In 2021, Gianchandani’s successes earned him the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, which is given to members of the federal government’s senior executive service for sustained, extraordinary accomplishment.

Gianchandani earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in biomedical engineering from the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2004, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees in biomedical engineering in 2007 and 2008, respectively. He has published extensively and presented at numerous international conferences on the subject of computational systems modeling of biological networks.

We asked Gianchandani to share some of his thoughts and experiences.

How did the new directorate come about?

We are answering a set of bipartisan, bicameral calls from Congress asking for a new directorate at NSF that advances critical and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum information science while addressing important societal and economic challenges that the United States is facing, whether it be equity, critical infrastructure, food and agriculture, and how these challenges might be mitigated or improved by advancing critical technologies.

Congress expressed support for the directorate when passing appropriations for fiscal year 2022, the current federal fiscal year, in March 2022. That prompted us to take the first step of establishing the directorate. There is also legislation that has passed both the House and Senate that would create very similar new directorates at NSF. The America COMPETES Act of 2022 [America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science], was passed by the House, and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, was passed by the Senate. Congress is now conferencing these bills with the goal of passing one Bipartisan Innovation Act, which would contain more provisions for a new NSF directorate for technology and innovation. NSF looks forward to Congressional action on this bill which will help us realize the vision for the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships.

I think of the directorate as a tremendous once-in-a-generation opportunity for the STEM research, innovation and education enterprise and I am looking forward to seeing how we can collaborate both internally within NSF, across government, academia, private sector, and civil society, to deliver on this opportunity and ultimately provide lasting and positive impacts for the American public.

 

What is the vision for the directorate, especially how it might affect academia?

I think that part of what we want to see happen with this directorate is a broadening of the nation’s research enterprise. At NSF, we are known for our support of the academic research community – and we will continue to be a leader in that regard. But we have to engage others – to nurture partnerships between academic researchers and innovators and practitioners in industry, state, local and tribal governments, civil society, communities of practice and beyond. We want to motivate research directions through the experiences and perspectives of those who stand to benefit from that research. 

Let's take a problem like, “How do I make my community resilient to flooding as a result of catastrophic storms?” If I’m the city planner responsible for that problem, I need research that can help me understand how to do this in an effective and cost-expedient way. That means partnering with an expert in urban planning who can help me with that research; and partnering with an expert in computing and computational technologies who can be helpful in terms of assimilating past flood data and modeling future flooding potential based on those data.

Or let’s take a problem like the supply chain crisis that we all are experiencing today. The cost and availability of everything from refrigerators to automobiles have been drastically affected by a lack of access to the computer chips that drive these systems. As we think about re-shoring chip manufacturing in the U.S., we also have to envision the next generation of computer chips. And that requires us to bring together the perspectives of industry, which designs and manufactures these chips, with academic researchers, who look ahead by five or 10 years to overcome the limits of current technologies, including how novel materials can be synthesized into future hardware platforms that can form the basis for future systems.

Piloting the research results in the very same contexts – in that community with flooding potential, or in that chip-manufacturing facility – where the problem first arose, and where the problem was originally inspired or motivated, allows us to understand what works and what doesn’t.

And then it's an iterative process. The piloting and prototyping gives us insights and, in turn, the results take us back to the lab and inspire further research and experimentation. I think the importance of co-design and co-creation through meaningful multi-sector partnerships coupled with iterative research and experimentation cannot be overstated.

But let me go beyond this vision of what we call “use-inspired” research and innovation. We also have to think about the talent base and training for the next generation of researchers, practitioners, technicians, entrepreneurs and educators.

 

Let’s consider where STEM talent is today or where STEM talent might be in the future. It's no longer concentrated in academia. There are STEM researchers, practitioners, and technicians in private industry, small companies, large corporations, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations and government that are very keen to see STEM advance. There are city governments, state governments and tribal governments that are increasingly appreciating the value of data, for instance, and the data science that needs to be done to inform data-driven decision making.

Then, thinking about new technologies and systems, it’s vital to have diverse teams comprising members who bring a wide range of perspectives in all different forms, and who work collaboratively to shape the design and development of these technologies or systems in ways that ultimately meet users’ needs. In other words, it is so critical for us to create pathways that allow anyone, anywhere to have an opportunity to engage in STEM, regardless of their demography, socioeconomic status, geographic location or institutional affiliation.

That is so intrinsic to this directorate.

 

What else is in the new directorate’s strategy?

The directorate wants to create more opportunities to accelerate the translation of the research results in our laboratories into tangible outcomes that positively impact society and in turn advance our nation’s competitiveness.

For example, for many years, NSF has supported the translation of research results to new products and startups. NSF pioneered the Small Business Innovation Research program in the 1970s and 1980s, and today that program is offered by many federal agencies to spur new startups and small businesses. And we certainly want to scale what we are able to do with programs like that program.

But we’d like to go further. In some technology areas, like advanced wireless, we have seen open-source ecosystems offer a competitive advantage to closed-box approaches. We are thinking about ways in which we can provide researchers and students with the resourcing and training to take their ideas and cultivate an open-source ecosystem, attracting top talent and catalyzing continued rapid, cost-effective innovation.

There are also pathways for NSF-funded research to potentially help inform policymaking, for example, hardening research results in ecology or wireless spectrum that can in turn inform federal policies and regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency or Federal Communications Commission.

Then there are ways in which research results can be transitioned to other agencies as part of their missions. Let’s use transportation as an example. NSF-funded advances in artificial intelligence, including computer vision and machine learning, can contribute to semi- or fully autonomous cars, and these innovations can be adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation as it leads an evolution in the nation’s transportation system.

                                                       

How has your experience at UVA influenced your career?

The first thing that comes to my mind is when I was a student in computational systems biology, I learned how to be bilingual across multiple fields. In my case, I had to understand the computing dimension and the terminology there, and I also had to understand the biomedical engineering dimension and the terminology there.

As an example, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, I studied AI — including data science, machine learning, AI predictive modeling — and how it intersected with the field of biomedical engineering and systems biology in particular. This was a case study for me for how the kinds of intersections between AI and other disciplines more generally.

In short, studying systems biology and participating in the many varied collaborations with folks across disciplines helped me have the conversations in a whole host of other areas. It also provided me a lens into how to include many different perspectives as a part of a research project with those different perspectives being on equal playing fields.

My advisor, Jason Papin, was very supportive of my ambitions to go beyond academia as part of my career. I got a chance to present a poster to the Richmond General Assembly, along with other students from UVA and other Virginia universities. I helped organize a student session at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, in Washington. And I did an internship at a pharmaceutical company, which would later help me understand the industry perspective.

But perhaps most notably, as an undergraduate, I did an internship in NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering — the same directorate in which I would later become the deputy assistant director.

I always had an interest in policy. I watched a lot of news shows growing up as a high schooler in the Washington suburbs.

When I realized that there was a UVA Policy Internship Program that could help me bring what I was learning in the classroom at UVA together with this interest that I had around policy, I knew I should take advantage of it.

The NSF deputy assistant director of the directorate at the time had me work on specific projects, but she was gracious enough to let me engage wherever I was interested. There was a hearing one day on Capitol Hill where the head of the directorate was testifying, so I went with him to the hill to watch the testimony. That was a neat experience.

Everyone at NSF is passionate about what they do. Many are former or current faculty, and they are all willing to drop what they're doing and have a conversation with you, particularly a summer intern who was the same age as the students they had spent their careers teaching and advising.

I walked away from that experience with a very positive taste in my mouth and felt like, “You know, it'd be cool to work at NSF one day down the road.”

Fast forward a bit and, as I was getting ready to defend my dissertation, I applied for a science and technology policy fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As I went through the interview process to place within the Federal Government, I was fortunate to have a choice between positions at the U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health, and NSF; it was a difficult decision, but I ended up picking NSF because of the great experience I had already had there, and especially getting the chance to work with my previous mentors again.

At NSF, I worked on health information technology right after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was passed. Part of that bill called for collaborations between NSF and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services around health information technology, so I worked on trying to help shape a new program in that space. I worked on computing and sustainability as well. It was also a good experience for me to see how to stand up new programs and how to make the case to agency leadership for new investment areas.

I have come to truly appreciate the experiential opportunities that accompanied classroom instruction and lab research at UVA. They were so formative in solidifying my interests and influencing which direction I ended up taking.