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Continuing Innovation in Information Technology
collaboration, physical proximity and collegial values go a long way in enabling collaboration. The multidisciplinary nature of universities is of historic and growing importance to computer science, which interfaces with so many other fields.
• Universities are “open” both literally and figuratively, a characteristic that can pay enormous unanticipated dividends. Chance interactions in an open environment can change the world; for example, when Microsoft founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates were students at Seattle’s Lakeside School in the early 1970s, they were exposed to computing and computer science at the University of Washington and to a university spin-off company, Computer Center Corporation.
These characteristics of university research share a common element—people. U.S. research universities are unique in the degree to which they integrate research with education—in both undergraduate and graduate education. Universities educate the skilled IT workers of the future.40 Their graduates are also by far the most effective vehicle for technology transfer, not only from universities to industry but also between university laboratories and departments, through the hiring of postdoctoral researchers and assistant professors.41 Faculty and student researchers often move into product-development roles as consultants, employees, and entrepreneurs.42 Federal support for university research drives this process. In Ph.D.-granting computer science programs, more than half of all graduate students receive financial support from the federal government, mostly in the form of research assistantships.43
Another benefit of federally funded academic research that doesn’t show up in Figure 1 is research’s contribution to the development of open standards and open-source codes that support further innovation. The standards that define the Internet had their origins in academic work, and federal support allowed many university researchers to participate in their development and evolution. The Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) Daemon Web server developed with NSF support at the University of Illinois by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications powered much of the early Web, and its code base was used to develop the open-source Apache Web server that is widely used today. Similarly, many of the team members who developed the original Mosaic Web browser went on to commercialize the product in the form of Netscape Navigator. Moreover, the open-source Mozilla browser code became a foundation for the Firefox browser.
In addition to educating students and creating ideas and companies, universities often bring forefront technologies to their regions (e.g., the nationwide expansion of ARPANET in the 1970s and of NSFnet in the 1980s, and the continuation of those efforts through the private Internet activities in the 1990s and early 2000s), and universities serve as powerful magnets for companies seeking to relocate. Indeed, strong research institutions are recognized as being among the most critical success factors in high-tech economic development.44,45