Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • Growing the Network of Innovators in Government

    Participants in a variety of Federal fellowship programs bring enthusiasm, new ideas, and fresh perspectives to Federal departments and agencies every day. Last week, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) convened a workshop to teach 100 current participants in Federal fellowship programs how to apply creative 21st-century tools to their fellowship projects, and to use these tools to inspire and ignite innovation in government.

    100 current participants in almost a dozen Federal fellowship programs gathered at OSTP last week to learn more about innovation in government. (Photo credit: Noel Bakhtian)

  • OSTP and USPTO Welcome Game-Changing Innovators for the 2015 Patents for Humanity Ceremony

    On April 20, OSTP and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) hosted the 2015 Patents for Humanity award winners for a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Patents for Humanity, which was launched at the White House in February 2012, is a USPTO program that recognizes innovators who use pioneering technology to confront humanitarian challenges.

    Under Secretary Michelle Lee with representatives of the 2015 Patents for Humanity award winners: American Standard Brands, Global Research Innovation & Technology (GRIT), Golden Rice, Novartis, Nutriset, Sanofi, and SunPower Corp. (Photo Credit: Jeff Isaacs, USPTO)

    OSTP has long recognized the promise of such pull mechanisms to help overcome market failures and catalyze potentially game-changing innovations through market incentives. The Administration’s efforts in this area focus on making the best use of the technological and scientific breakthroughs that are characteristic of America’s entrepreneurs, innovators, and researchers by expediting commercialization of inventions for humanitarian purposes and rewarding companies that use their patented technologies to solve societal challenges.

  • 21st-Century Public Servants: Using Prizes and Challenges to Spur Innovation

    Thousands of Federal employees across the government are using a variety of modern tools and techniques to deliver services more effectively and efficiently, and to solve problems that relate to the missions of their Agencies. These 21st-century public servants are accomplishing meaningful results by applying new tools and techniques to their programs and projects, such as prizes and challenges, citizen science and crowdsourcing, open data, and human-centered design.

    Prizes and challenges have been a particularly popular tool at Federal agencies. With 397 prizes and challenges posted on since September 2010, there are hundreds of examples of the many different ways these tools can be designed for a variety of goals. For example:

    • NASA’s Mars Balance Mass Challenge: When NASA’s Curiosity rover pummeled through the Martian atmosphere and came to rest on the surface of Mars in 2012, about 300 kilograms of solid tungsten mass had to be jettisoned to ensure the spacecraft was in a safe orientation for landing. In an effort to seek creative concepts for small science and technology payloads that could potentially replace a portion of such jettisoned mass on future missions, NASA released the Mars Balance Mass Challenge. In only two months, over 200 concepts were submitted by over 2,100 individuals from 43 different countries for NASA to review. Proposed concepts ranged from small drones and 3D printers to radiation detectors and pre-positioning supplies for future human missions to the planet’s surface. NASA awarded the $20,000 prize to Ted Ground of Rising Star, Texas for his idea to use the jettisoned payload to investigate the Mars atmosphere in a way similar to how NASA uses sounding rockets to study Earth’s atmosphere. This was the first time Ted worked with NASA, and NASA was impressed by the novelty and elegance of his proposal: a proposal that NASA likely would not have received through a traditional contract or grant because individuals, as opposed to organizations, are generally not eligible to participate in those types of competitions.
    • National Institutes of Health (NIH) Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC): The primary goals of the BCSC were to accelerate the process of bringing emerging breast cancer technologies to market, and to stimulate the creation of start-up businesses around nine federally conceived and owned inventions, and one invention from an Avon Foundation for Women portfolio grantee.  While NIH has the capacity to enable collaborative research or to license technology to existing businesses, many technologies are at an early stage and are ideally suited for licensing by startup companies to further develop them into commercial products. This challenge established 11 new startups that have the potential to create new jobs and help promising NIH cancer inventions support the fight against breast cancer. The BCSC turned the traditional business plan competition model on its head to create a new channel to license inventions by crowdsourcing talent to create new startups.

    These two examples of challenges are very different, in terms of their purpose and the process used to design and implement them. The success they have demonstrated shouldn’t be taken for granted. It takes access to resources (both information and people), mentoring, and practical experience to both understand how to identify opportunities for innovation tools, like prizes and challenges, to use them to achieve a desired outcome.

    The Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes and challenges standard tools in every agency’s innovation toolbox. To make these tools easier to use by more Federal employees, the Administration committed in the 2013 Second Open Government National Action Plan to “convene an interagency group to develop an Open Innovation Toolkit for Federal agencies that will include best practices, training, policies, and guidance on authorities related to open innovation, including approaches such as incentive prizes, crowdsourcing, and citizen science.” Work on developing one half of this open innovation toolkit, the citizen science and crowdsourcing toolkit, began in fall 2014.

    Last month, the program at the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and a core team of Federal leaders in the prize-practitioner community began collaborating with the Federal Community of Practice for Challenges and Prizes to develop the other half of the open innovation toolkit, the prizes and challenges toolkit. In developing this toolkit, OSTP and GSA are thinking not only about the information and process resources that would be helpful to empower 21st-century public servants using these tools, but also how we help connect these people to one another to add another meaningful layer to the learning environment.


    On March 6, 2015, the White House OSTP, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab, and the GSA program convened an all-day, user-centered design workshop to develop user needs for a Federal prizes and challenges toolkit. Thirty members of the Federal Community of Practice for Prizes and Challenges participated. (Photo credit: Arianne Miller)

    Creating an inventory of skills and knowledge across the 600-person (and growing!) Federal community of practice in prizes and challenges will likely be an important resource in support of a useful toolkit. Prize design and implementation can involve tricky questions, such as:

    • Do I have the authority to conduct a prize or challenge?
    • How should I approach problem definition and prize design?
    • Can agencies own solutions that come out of challenges?
    • How should I engage the public in developing a prize concept or rules?
    • What types of incentives work best to motivate participation in challenges?
    • What legal requirements apply to my prize competition?
    • Can non-Federal employees be included as judges for my prizes?
    • How objective do the judging criteria need to be? 
    • Can I partner to conduct a challenge? What’s the right agreement to use in a partnership?
    • Who can win prize money and who is eligible to compete?

    Often there are not “one-size-fits-all” answers to these questions, which is what makes peer-to-peer consultation so valuable. Making it easier for public servants to find each other and know who to reach out to for consultation will help expand prize design and implementation capacity in the Federal workforce, and will enable organic scaling the use of these tools.

    As more and more Federal employees are equipped with modern tools and techniques such as prizes and challenges, 21st-century public servants will have more options for making meaningful progress towards solving tough problems and delivering services more efficiently and effectively in areas of national priority such as energy, health care, precision medicine, education, and the economy.

    Jenn Gustetic is Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

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  • EPA Launches New Website to Track Safe Drinking Water Compliance

    Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Safe Drinking Water Act dashboard, a website that tracks whether public water systems are complying with the laws that keep our water safe and clean.

    Clean water is a precious resource. That’s why the EPA sets standards for drinking water quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and works with state, tribal, and territorial agencies to oversee implementation of those standards.  At the same time, the Obama Administration continues to advance its open data initiatives – focused on unleashing data across range of topics to empower citizens, communities, entrepreneurs and businesses with the information they need to innovate and make informed decisions.

    The SDWA Dashboard released last week sits at the nexus of these two important policy efforts. The Dashboard openly tracks data about water-facility inspection visits, enforcement actions, and more. Interactive charts show detailed data about facility reports for individual public water systems. Everything on the dashboard can be exported, downloaded and printed.

    The SDWA Dashboard is connected to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, which hosts thousands of visitors each month who are seeking information about the compliance status of facilities in their communities. Users can also investigate pollution sources, examine and create enforcement-related maps, or explore any state's performance with respect to several environmental laws. ECHO is a great example of government transparency, and of EPA’s commitment to engage the public in environmental protection.

    With expanded access to data, anyone can get informed and help play a role in keeping communities safe and healthy.

    Corinna Zarek is the Senior Advisor for Open Government to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer

    Lisa Lund is the Director of the Office of Compliance at the Environmental Protection Agency


  • A Team of DREAMers and a Robot Named “Stinky”

    The White House celebrated National Robotics Week last week, highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and stressing the need to advance President Obama’s efforts to reform our broken immigration system.

    NASA's RoboNaut (Photo Credit: Barry Cordero)

    On Tuesday, April 7, the White House hosted more than 100 students from as far away as California at a screening of the movie Underwater Dreams, kicking off screenings in thousands of classrooms across the country. This documentary follows a team of undocumented students from Carl Hayden High School in Arizona and their underwater robot, “Stinky” -- a story that proves that science can -- and should -- be for all of us. With perseverance, ingenuity, and the support of their teachers and community, the young DREAMers in the film, Cristian Arcega, Luis Aranda, Lorenzo Santillan, and Oscar Vazquez, challenged some of the best engineering teams in the country -- and won! To complete the exciting and inspiring day, President Obama introduced the film with a video message that underscored the extraordinary contributions immigrants have made to keep America competitive and on the cutting edge. Watch it here:

    These pioneering robotics teammates, who are now continuing their education and earning a living here in the United States, joined the students and spoke to them about the challenges they faced as immigrants. One of their challengers from the robotics competition participated in this reunion as well! The Carl Hayden team’s passion for exploring, tinkering, and constructing a robot transformed the idea of engineering from an abstract concept to something tangible they could master, all while in high school. Engineering changed their lives, and the lives of their families and communities, forever.

    Another special guest, NASA’s very own fist-bumping robot-astronaut “RoboNaut,” joined the Underwater Dreams team in providing inspiration for the science enthusiasts in the room -- young and old.

    And yet another student/teacher team attended the screening: the White House’s very own engineering expert, Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, and her former advisor Dr. Woodie Flowers. Dr. Flowers created the FIRST Robotics Challenge -- a nationwide program that students from Carl Hayden participate in to this day. In fact, there’s so much excitement about robots and engineering at Carl Hayden that the school sent a team to demo their robot for President Obama at the White House Science Fair in March 2015.

    Richard Voyles is the Assistant Director for Robotics and Cyber-Physical Systems at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    Rafael Lopez is a Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • This Friday: Tech Meetup at the White House

    On Friday, April 17, the White House will host local leaders from all across our “Innovation Nation” at the first-ever White House Tech Meetup.

    Organizers from cities and rural communities are starting coding bootcamps, hosting startup weekends, running share spaces, holding maker events, and setting up hundreds of innovation-focused tech Meetups every day. They hail from all parts of the United States – from Alaska to Alabama, Connecticut to Kentucky, New Jersey to New Mexico, Ohio to Oregon, Tennessee to Texas, and Nebraska to New York.

    They are community organizers, local elected officials, artists, business and civic leaders, coders, designers, entrepreneurs, funders, and more. Each of these leaders is playing a part in building interconnected local talent ecosystems that enable more Americans to get involved in entrepreneurship, economic development, and community solutions – inclusive, fun, high-impact innovation of all kinds.

    We will gather for the White House Tech Meetup with a few goals in mind: to help each other thrive by sharing best practices and scale outreach and inclusion efforts, to find ways to help more of our neighbors join in (especially those who have been less well-represented in tech), and to engage young people. Through this event, we want to “upgrade” the ability to include all of us in technology and innovation.