A new era of research cooperation

Erich Bloch

Research in the 1990s certainly has undergone vast changes. Information technology has become both an object and an instrument of research: It not only has emerged as a fertile and rapidly moving research area but has generated new tools and approaches for research in multiple fields. Today, as a consequence, computer modeling, simulation, and visualization are tools of the researcher, on a par with theory and experimentation. These new tools, in combination with new scientific insights, account for progress in the biological sciences and developments in new materials. The changes also compress the time scale of discovery and innovation, accelerating and broadening their diffusion across the globe.

In this century, the United States has moved from an economy dominated by trusts and monopolies to an era where industry concentration was vigorously questioned and dismantled. The separation of industry, government, and academia became the norm. As we approach the new millennium, the shift toward collaboration and cooperation among these same sectors, precipitated by forces within science and technology themselves and by competition in the global marketplace, signifies a new beginning for research interactions.

Against this background, the mechanisms of technology transfer are also changing. Too many people have envisioned this process as an off-the-shelf transaction. In reality, it results more often than not from an intimate exchange between persons from different environments who hold contrasting motivations but share a common problem.

Today, the myriad relationships that have arisen among academia, industry, and government enhance technology transfer. The almost pathological separation of industry from government and the even greater separation of academia and industry of earlier times -- caused by the erroneous view that such relationships amount to "industrial policy," a synonym for central planning -- are replaced by cooperation and collaboration.

Examples are too many to list, but a few will illustrate the point:

  • The Semiconductor Research Corporation, a partnership among semiconductor and computer companies, funds academic research in the areas of interest to its members.

  • The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) is a government-industry research partnership that involves government laboratories, the "Big Three" automakers, and many smaller companies. The goal of PNGV is nothing less than the development of a more environmentally benign and energy-efficient technology.

  • Engineering Research and Science and Technology Centers of the National Science Foundation are academic centers for advanced multidisciplinary research. They are facilitating the fusion of different sciences and technologies to attract industry participation and allow a base for new industrial sectors to develop.

  • Various industry partnerships, like the IBM-Siemens-Motorola consortium in semiconductor research and development, are R&D collaborations among foreign and domestic firms, even though some of the partners compete in the marketplace.

The common denominators among these few examples are, first, the recognition that today's technologies are more complex, more intertwined with social considerations, costlier to develop, and dependent on more limited available resources in the public and private sectors. Second, the participants agree that in order to gain the full benefit of the research investment, both the performers of research and some of the ultimate users need to be present at the moment of creation. The old model of handing off research to development and then to manufacturing in a linear fashion is not viable in today's global economy; it has been replaced by a dynamic and concurrent process, with feedback among the various stages of innovation.

Working together raises concerns on all sides. Universities fear the limited time horizon of industry, while industry would like to measure university research by a strict schedule of "deliverables." Both are trying to hold each other to unnecessarily difficult intellectual property rights agreements. The forces that precipitate these changes, however, are equally persistent and convincing. At no time in the last few decades were we lacking the ability to invent and discover; what did not measure up to the requirements was the translation into timely and competitive products. Technology transfer, partnering, and more integrated organizations can alleviate that deficiency.

Technology and the increasing speed of discovery and diffusion across the globe are certainly motivators to these changes; the increase of global competition has a similar effect. While this picture of economic globalization at first glance might suggest an arrangement of mutually assured access to each national market, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, globalization has increased competition among nations -- exceeding, one could argue, the competition between companies. For example, open access to the Japanese market remains difficult for many companies, despite the large number of partnerships between competing Japanese and American firms.

What does this all portend for universities? More direct and intimate involvement with industry is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, industry can stimulate basic research and provide insights that would be difficult for university researchers to acquire without this interaction. The funding coming from industry is a welcome source; so is access to industrial facilities and equipment. Interaction of both researchers and students with the management of companies can lead to future research and business relationships. Similarly, companies profit from academic partnerships by having access to a knowledge source they cannot duplicate on their own.

On the negative side, the university must protect its mission of basic research. Universities want and need to be far enough removed from the marketplace to avoid distraction from their own purpose, maintaining the delicate balance between attracting business interests and sacrificing well-deserved rewards for the institution and faculty. Companies, on the other hand, need to deal with the openness of the academic system and still protect their own proprietary interests.

Today, industry is less self-sufficient in basic research than in the past, and universities are asked to step into this breach. Government R&D agencies must account for their contributions to society, not just their fulfillment of an official mission. For these reasons, partnerships, technology transfer, and collaboration are not momentary whims. They are necessities in the changing environment of technology, science, and the economy.

Related links:

  • David Roessner et al., "The Role of NSF's Support of Engineering in Enabling Technological Innovation", report prepared for the National Science Foundation by SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute)

  • SEMATECH, R&D consortium of U.S. semiconductor manufacturers

    ERICH BLOCH is Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Competitiveness, Washington, D.C., and Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Mason University. From 1984 to 1990 he served as director of the National Science Foundation.