Op-ed | The business ROI on NASA research investments

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2019 NASA budget represents a slight overall increase in funding while aiming to close out a handful of programs and projects. While the uptick is welcome, program cuts can still have consequences and may undercut job creation, research and even private sector business development.

First, some 18,000 people work directly for NASA and tens of thousands more rely on the contracts that come from America’s space administration. Most of those jobs are exactly the types of positions that policymakers say they want: high wage, high skill careers in math, engineering and science. That’s another compelling reason to keep the public investments flowing at NASA is the research itself.

Yes, it’s easy to be poetic about the inherent value of knowing things and the glories of scientific discovery. And it’s true that tomorrow’s epiphanies are built using the scaffolding of today’s inquiries. And, not for nothing, but NASA is doing some pretty serious inquiring about some of the most important questions in the universe.

But, budget trimmers may argue, funding is about dollars and requires a business approach. We can’t have everything, they could say, and while nice, NASA funding should be evaluated on a business-style return on investment basis, hard return on investment.

Fair enough. Let me make the case that investments in NASA provide great ROI in dollars as well as enlightenment.

More than 20 years ago, government-funded NASA scientists and engineers were working on the X-38 project, a reusable X-plane crew return vehicle. Building on previous NASA work, X-38 engineers helped create a lightweight, highly conductive, thermal management material made of carbon fiber.

The thermal management carbon fiber they created endured, evolved and was deployed on future projects. Eventually, the technology made its way to and through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program — an initiative run by the Small Business Administration to help small American businesses acquire, develop and build businesses around government technology and research.

That’s where our company, KULR Technology, working with private engineers and researchers, continued to develop and refine the fiber,  adapting it for a variety of private business applications. KULR Technology now employees more than 20 people — many in high-wage, high skill fields.

That’s the way things are supposed to work – government-funded, high-tech research, matched with private enterprise, spun into a profitable American company putting Americans to work and returning reward to investors.

And that’s the point.

The payoff for the dollars we invest today in NASA research may be decades down the road. The path may be bumpy and indirect, but it’s there. In this case, investments taxpayers made in NASA more than 20 years ago will make major contributions to consumers and businesses across several billion-dollar markets.

And those two-decade-old NASA investments are also paying off in continued research. The carbon fiber developed by NASA and refined by KULR is in orbit right now on the International Space Station, deployed as part of NASA’s NICER mission to explore neutron stars and pulsars — research that could very will spin off its own innovations and businesses 20 or 30 years from now.

I’m not suggesting that research programs continue ad infinitum or that cost-benefit conversations are not necessary. They should not. And they are.

But I am saying that every program cut this year may delay or lock away research that can eventually support private sector innovation, growth, jobs and taxes  — real returns for both business and government. Policymakers and budget writers should be exceptionally careful about what they cut, or whether they cut.

Case in point: ironically, the X-38 program that sparked the carbon fiber technology that spawned our company, was canceled in a 2002 in a round of budget cuts. Thankfully, the plug was pulled after the team made early breakthroughs in conductive carbon fiber, not before.

Michael Mo is the co-founder and CEO of KULR Technology which has developed carbon fiber cooling solutions for energy and technology based on research and development by NASA. He has a master’s in electrical engineering from University of California Santa Barbara.