A new American research model is needed today (opinion)

More than a century after Thomas Newcomen, a miner, and John Calley, his assistant plumber, invented the first useful steam engine, French scientist Sadi Carnot developed the theory of thermodynamics to explain it. And in 1903, bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright performed the first powered flight, but the underlying mathematics of aerodynamic theory was explained by an academic scientist – Ludwig Prandtl of the University of Hanover – nearly two decades ago. later.

These examples taken from The code breaker, by Walter Isaacson, provide an important lesson on the relationship between application and theory that is relevant to future technological innovation – and to research at universities in the United States.

Vannevar Bush, director of the US Bureau of Scientific Research and Development in the 1940s, articulated the inverse relationship between basic and applied research: Universities play a critical role in the development of basic science that industry deploys to create products. Bush’s linear approach, which led to the creation of the National Science Foundation, has fueled innovation in the United States for decades. But America’s dominance of the innovation economy is currently under threat and a new model is needed more than ever.

The bipartisan concern over the erosion of the dominance of American innovation led Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, to co-sponsor the ‘Endless Frontier Act to invest $ 100 billion in research on emerging technologies. . Echoing their apprehensions about “our national research and innovation enterprise,” Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, added his support for “the infrastructure we need to support technological development.”

To more effectively harness the potential of research universities, whose basic research has enabled the development of, among other products, the iPhone, RNA vaccines and self-driving cars, we need a paradigm shift in the industry. Higher Education. The new approach begins with an affirmation of the centrality of discovery, but it explicitly recognizes the role of the market in driving innovation and the marked reduction in the time between concept and product. It complements and complements basic research with investments and expertise in feasibility assessment, design and transitions to commercial markets. This model does not treat exploratory (basic) and translational (applied) research as silos but, as Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, proposed, as double-stranded, multidirectional and mutually reinforcing DNA.

Dependent on a change in culture, hiring and resource allocation within the academy, as well as a new kind of partnership with government and industry, this model calls for discovery engines and unified marketing systems, or “D&CE”. The university’s D&C drivers are transdisciplinary teams integrating expertise in physical and biological sciences, social sciences, engineering, humanities, business and entrepreneurship, and who work with government, business and social partners. venture capital to develop new generation products. These teams are essential if we are to tackle global crises, including climate, energy, food, water, health, inequality and poverty.

In practical terms, the change should be accompanied by changes in pedagogy and curriculum that expose students to business strategies, intellectual property concepts, patent protocols, marketing and supply chains, and experiential learning in business.

Catalyzing the development of diverse local economies made up of start-ups, step-ups and established businesses will also create opportunities for students and boost economic development in college towns and beyond. To encourage businesses to stay local, universities should work with government officials to identify tax and other incentives.

As universities encourage collaborations between private companies and innovative professors, they must find new ways, where appropriate, to “share” professors with companies. Such partnerships retain talented professors in the academy while providing them with opportunities to fully develop and market their ideas.

Universities should also develop investment funds through a combination of philanthropy and venture capital to support the development of new discoveries, provide an incubation space for the early stages of proof of concept and risk reduction, and work on identifying a co-location space for established companies. . Seed and gap financing are essential to validate technologies at an early stage, strengthen intellectual property, and bring the technology to the inflection point for further development.

Finally, where appropriate, as is increasingly the case in the fields of computer science, information science and genetics, universities should adopt “translational” achievements as parameters of tenure and promotion of professors and include marketing within the framework of the doctorate. theses.

This new emphasis will not compromise essential institutional values, including independence of thought, impartial discovery and transparency. But adapting to the indivisible nature of discovery and application will be necessary to increase the volume and speed of technology commercialization and start-up creation, nurture the next generation of innovators, catalyze the economic development and provide desired returns on federally funded programs. like the aptly named Frontless Frontier.


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