Students WISE Up on Public Policy Issues

Projects focus on improving patent quality and ensuring a reliable electricity supply

7 November 2008

Improving patent quality and ensuring a reliable electricity supply were the public policy research projects that a pair of IEEE student members, Jonathan Becker and Gregory Tress, took on during their stint in the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering program. IEEE and 28 other engineering societies sponsor the WISE program, which brings as many as 15 U.S. engineering students to Washington, D.C., for nine weeks each summer to conduct research and learn how engineers can influence public policy on engineering-related issues.

Becker and Tress were among 11 WISE students who presented their findings in August on Capitol Hill. Becker, a senior electrical engineering student at Syracuse University, in New York, plans to pursue a patent law degree and work with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or a private patent firm. Tress, a senior majoring in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, plans to work as a software or hardware engineer.

“WISE is a great opportunity to learn legal aspects of engineering, because it’s one of the few programs that combine policy and engineering,” Becker says. “Most of my classmates do internships at engineering firms, but I really wanted to find out how policy interacted with engineering and how engineers could make recommendations and influence policy makers.”

The students had weekly meetings with staff members from Congress and the executive branch who briefed them on their bosses’ roles in the process of creating public policy. The students visited the offices of NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They also met with representatives of standards organizations such as the American Society for Testing and Materials, the American National Standards Institute, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to learn how engineers are affected by standards and policy.

“The relationship between engineers and policy is not obvious, so one of the objectives of the WISE program is to demonstrate the importance of that relationship,” Tress says.

BETTER PATENTS In his 25-page “Better Prior Art Utilization to Improve Patent Quality” research paper, Becker explores the issue of low-quality patents and makes recommendations for how to improve the patent examination process. According to Becker, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been granting patents that either seem obvious or shouldn’t even be granted. Patent law requires inventions to be novel and not obvious to one skilled in the art. Bad patents can have a serious economic impact because companies might have to pay licensing fees for inventions that infringe on a patent, with the cost passed on to the consumer. In addition, when an inventor is granted a patent or a monopoly on information already in the public domain, consumers are forced to pay for information that really should remain free.

Becker found that constraints imposed by the complexity of the examination process, as well as the time and money it takes to thoroughly examine patent applications, prevent the Patent Office from conducting adequate examinations. On top of that is the emergence of new fields, such as nanotechnology, with very little prior art—which makes it difficult to analyze the novelty of an invention. Becker offers several recommendations for improvements, including developing a state-of-the-art classification system to manage expansive claims from emerging fields. That way, examiners would be better equipped to reference the prior, non-patent art that is available—leading to patents being granted that more accurately represent claims that are actually novel.

BETTER POWER SOURCES Tress covers the technical and economic issues associated with different types of U.S. generation facilities in “Ensuring Reliable Electricity Supplies Using Distributed Generation.” His 28-page paper is geared toward educating lawmakers on the prospect of dispatchable distributed generation systems promoting reliability of the North American power grid.

Powered by fossil fuels or biomass, dispatchable generation units can be turned on and off when needed to supply electricity to a local area. Distributed generation, in both intermittent and dispatchable forms, could overcome many issues facing reliable electricity delivery in the United States, according to Tress. An intermittent power source of electric power generation is one that can be uncontrollably variable or more intermittent than conventional power sources, and therefore non-dispatchable. Such sources of renewable energy include wind-and solar-generated electricity. Dispatchable generation refers to sources of electricity that can be dispatched at the request of power grid operators, turned on or off on demand.

Distributed generators are already on the market, Tress notes, and the technology for efficient small-scale generation works. However, there have been no specific policy directives for the widespread construction of distributed generators. In fact, the notion that generators can be installed in every populated area might not be feasible, thanks to high costs, environmental effects, and other factors specific to different municipalities and regions. Tress recommends that short-term research focus on commercial and industrial installations of dispatchable equipment where efficiencies are highest and the installations are most cost-effective.

“Widespread adoption of such generation will require economic and environmental assessments and an analysis of existing distributed impacts before policies can be adopted to regulate the market,” he writes. “Reliability must be ensured as intermittent sources are adopted at an increasing rate, requiring the promise of transmission investment and dispatchable sources as backup.”

To read the entire reports or to learn more about the WISE program, visit the program website.

Applications for the summer 2009 internship program are now being accepted and are available from the Web site. The deadline to apply is 31 December.

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