The semiconductor industry’s blood pressure went down a few points on Friday when the U.S. Department of Congress lifted the ban on component sales to ZTE. Executives have been upping their intake of since the Trump Administration announced the ban and plans for tariffs on their largest market.

It’s not clear if President Trump’s attempt to disrupt trade relations will open an opportunity to reset the relationship and create the “level playing field” chip trade groups have long sought. These days those groups fear the tactics could create a protracted trade war that could trigger an economic downturn.

Another possibility is that the hot air and headlines will blow over with little impact. In general, presidents have little impact on economic ups and downs except to get praise or blame for them. Then again, the recent ban and tariffs are not presidential politics as usual. 

Much of the real impact of government comes from the hard work of committed middle managers working below the political radar, according to New York Times’ columnist David Brooks. I think he has a point. With that in mind, I was mildly cheered to listen to a handful of such middle managers talk about how they are sticking to their knitting at a recent Semicon West panel.

The session was billed as a first peek at a national semiconductor strategy in the works. The strategy from all accounts will be a collection of high-level ideas without specific action items or teeth.

The chip strategy-in-progress is rooted in a similar document on national security released in December, according to Lloyd Whitman, principal assistant director for physical sciences and engineering in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), moderator of the Semicon West panel. It will list critical technologies, many rooted in semiconductors, along with broad ideas for how to promote and protect them with a collection of investments, security measures and international collaborations.

Whitman and the panel spoke only of the investment aspects of the strategy, most of them programs that have been in place while several presidents have come and gone. Indeed, Whitman joined OSTP under the Obama Administration, helping direct its National Nanotechnology Initiative that set up research centers in fields including photonics, 3D printing and flexible hybrid electronics.

The Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) is one of the biggest government investments to watch over the next few years. It’s a package of DARPA research projects that aim to bolster semiconductor technology at a time when Moore’s Law is flagging. Although ERI is relatively large, it generally flies below the radar of presidential politics.

Support for the semiconductor industry “was of significant interest in the last administration and pretty much continued unabated in the current one,” said Whitman when asked if he detected any changes in the temperature of the Trump era.

A panelist from the National Science Foundation agreed. Despite initial fears of budget cuts by President Trump, NSF got a 4% boost in its current fiscal year, worth about $300 million.

The NSF increase will fund at least some of the 10 Big Ideas the agency had articulated in 2016 including programs related to quantum computing and communications and big data, said Sankar Basu, a program director in computer and information science and engineering at NSF.

Lloyd Whitman gave a sparse Semicon West audience an update on a national semiconductor strategy. (Image: EE Times)
Lloyd Whitman gave a sparse Semicon West audience an update on a national semiconductor strategy. (Image: EE Times)

Meanwhile the Department of Energy is considering its first chip-related research projects as part of its 2020 fiscal budget now in the planning stages, said another panelist. The DoE already leads the way in commissioning world-leading supercomputers such as the recent Summit system.

“We see consolidation in microelectronics and want to help spawn a pipeline for advanced technologies, so we are looking at how we can include research that enables new devices, materials and computer architectures that we don’t [typically] fund,” said Robinson Pino, an acting research division director for advanced scientific computing in the office of science at the DoE.

Separately, OSTP has been working for three months on plans for a potential $100 million cross-agency program in artificial intelligence. Hardware projects may be one focus of the program, said Whitman.

Such programs are good news for a U.S. industry generally not nourished as well as its counterparts elsewhere in the world. But until the political situation calms down they will do little to cool the jitters of executives keeping a close watch on the headlines out of Washington D.C.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times