Eating the Seed Corn

Here’s an interesting article that highlights some points I’ve been making for some time, e.g. that government spending on engineering pays off and that our spending priorities are backwards:

David C. Morton and his team at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory faced a $4 million chemistry problem: Develop a glue that could survive the harsh conditions of semiconductor manufacturing—acids, etching, plasmas, and a vacuum—and then peel off like a Post-it note.

The glue anchored the creation of light, flexible displays to replace the fragile, heavy glass screens that soldiers use for everything from chemical and biological weapons detection to communications to X-ray detectors for examining potential bombs.

“The Army recognized that flexible displays were a useful technology, so we wanted to speed their development,” says Morton, who manages the Flexible Display Center at the Army’s lab in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Adelphi, Md. Developing that glue was just one step in the $94 million, 10-year project, which was run under a contract with Arizona State University with the participation of around 30 industrial partners.

The glue worked. As he shows off a flexible screen on the sleeve of a camouflage uniform, Morton estimates that the Army lab’s investment has sped development of the flexible displays by five years. “We are successful in the sense that there will be commercial technology this year that the Army will be able to buy,” he says.

That success is just the kind the Department of Defense seeks from its nearly $75 billion-per-year science and technology enterprise, which is larger than all other federal R&D programs combined. Its internal research labs and contracts with universities and industry all focus on developing the science and technology that the military will need in the future.

Military R&D is practically the only federal science spending that has really paid off over the years. The Internet, the printed circuit board, and the integrated circuit—all vital to our modern world—are largely the children of military R&D spending. So, what are we doing? We’ve cut military R&D, a spit in the ocean relative to total defense spending, 12% over the last four years in favor of other spending priorities.

2 comments… add one
  • Drew Link

    As someone who was at one point a materials engineer, this is just effing fascinating.

    Do you have a link, Dave, to the underlying technology? sticks when you want, but not when you don’t. Now if that doesn’t create curiosity nothing will. Must be a chemical reaction in the final processing stage that deactivates the “stickiness.”.

    Inquiring minds want to know…….

  • Nope, that’s it. Yeah, I thought it was really interesting, too.

    I also think that flexible displays are an extremely promising technology. I can think of all sorts of uses for them. Not the least, of course, is a wearable cellphone.

Leave a Comment