The University Role in Research
Overview of Academic Research and Trends
The U.S. research university is the benchmark for the rest of the world. Facilities, faculty, research funding, and the ability to attract the best students are all key success factors. This leadership position has been established during the twentieth century. The immigration of talented scientists and engineers to the United States, stable and increasing funding from the state and federal governments, particularly after World War II, and an expanding job market for graduates have contributed to the preeminence of U.S. research universities. During the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, the academic sector played an increasing role in U.S. R&D performance, with its share rising from 9.8 percent to 12.6 percent of the total.
However, U.S. academic research faces major challenges. Federal funding, as well as state funding of many public universities, has been flat or declining in real terms since the early 1990s. In a number of science and engineering fields, foreign students make up most of the enrollment at the Ph.D. level. Doctoral recipients in some fields have experienced difficulty in finding attractive positions, whereas universities are finding it difficult to fill tenure-track positions in other fields where there is strong industry demand for talent. University administrations, with their government and industry partners, must address these pressures to maintain the strong position of U.S. academic research.
Today, most basic research is performed in universities, and most university
basic research is supported by federal agencies.23 This federal support is concentrated in three agencies: the National Institutes of Health (53 percent), NSF (15 percent), and the Department of Defense (12 percent).
Federal research support is one important mechanism for financing science and engineering education, and its importance grows at the most advanced levels. In 1993, 27 percent of all full-time graduate students in science and engineering received primary support from research assistantships, roughly half of which were federally funded. At the doctoral level, about 38 percent of academic doctoral scientists and engineers reported receiving federal support in the spring of 1993. Life sciences (53 percent) and environmental sciences (52 percent) had the highest support rates; mathematics (21 percent) and the social sciences (15 percent) had the lowest.
After the federal government, the academic institutions performing research and development (R&D) provided the second largest share of academic R&D support. Much of this funding comes from state governments but is counted as institutional funding because the university has discretion over whether it will be spent on research or in other ways. From 1980 to 1995, the institutional share grew from 13.8 percent to an estimated 18.1 percent of academic R&D expenditures.
Industrial R&D support of academic institutions has grown more rapidly than support from other sources since 1980. In constant dollars, industry-financed academic R&D increased by an estimated 250 percent from 1980 to 1995, as industry's share grew from 3.9 percent to 6.9 percent. Although industry has expanded its share of support for academic research, it is still much lower than federal or state support.
More and more academic institutions are receiving patents. The 100 largest research universities, which account for roughly 80 percent of total academic R&D expenditures, received about 90 percent of all academic patents. In 1994, patents awarded to U.S. academic institutions continued their rapid increase—1,761 patents awarded, compared with 434 a decade earlier. The academic sector's share of all U.S. patents rose to 3 percent from less than half that in 1991 and from 1 percent in 1980. The biomedical area is a particular focus for academic patenting, with three patent use classes in the biomedical area accounting for 25 percent of all academic patents.
Research universities benefit from interacting with industry in many ways; this is most important, perhaps, because such interaction improves the capacity of
universities to obtain funds to strengthen their basic research and graduate training programs and to support the facilities that make those programs possible. Research sponsored by industry provides students and faculty with exposure to real-world problems and with an opportunity to work on intellectually challenging puzzles whose solution might be of immediate importance to society at large. Faculty researchers also report that industry money typically involves less bureaucracy than government money and that the reporting requirements are not as time-consuming. At the same time, some government funds for research are tied to joint efforts between universities and industry, and so, research collaborations with industry could become increasingly vital to obtaining more government support for research and graduate education at universities.
Universities are being called on to perform more long-term use-driven research of the type that in the past has been conducted in industry central laboratories, as companies increasingly focus on short-term product needs, as described in chapter 3. Although long-term research in industry has never constituted a large share of U.S. R&D, it has produced some of the most economically important inventions of the last 50 years. A dearth of this kind of funding could lead to a future dearth of important inventions.
In addition, the nature of technology-based competition is changing; there is a greater emphasis on the development of components and subsystems, architectures and designs, software, and computing standards, as opposed to complex manufacturing and assembly, a key source of Japan's competitive advantage.24 In the new environment, competitive positions are defended as much by staking out intellectual property rights, technology adaptation, or broad market acceptance of company standards as by production skill. As a consequence, a more intimate relationship is required between the source of the technology—whether it be a university, a company, or a government laboratory—and the user of the product that incorporates the technology. The university, as a source of science and engineering, thus changes from being at one end of a funnel to being part of a circle, which involves continuous interaction with the marketplace.
That the technological requirements of industrial customers increasingly call for solution of fundamental scientific puzzles means that faculty are increasingly attracted to this sort of use-oriented research on their own; in addition, graduate students involved in research now are trained in science and engineering practices that can lead to employment in industry just as easily as employment in academe. Research agendas already are changing to reflect the new realities. Therefore, universities must be vigilant about safeguarding the open academic
environment and protecting student research agendas from undue commercial influence.25
Freedom to publish and discuss research results is a hallmark of the university. Academic research generally is aimed at fundamental, long-term problems, not at meeting short-term product needs, although some university breakthroughs are commercialized quickly. These characteristics of university research can conflict with industry's interest in short-term contributions to the development and production of specific products, and with industry's need to protect information until patents or products are realized from research results.
Industry and universities have made progress in developing mechanisms for cooperation that reconcile different outlooks and time horizons. However, further learning and adaptation on each side will be required to bring about expanded industry support for university research consistent with the core values of academe. A 1996 report suggests that increases in industry funding are not compromising the basic integrity of university research, as some critics have charged (Blumenthal et al., 1996). However, the report did find that industry-sponsored scientists tend to be more secretive about their work and more likely to choose research topics with commercial appeal.
The role of people in knowledge transfer raises important issues. One of the most effective mechanisms for applying the results of university research in industry is the movement of people. Industry hiring of graduates and the participation of faculty and graduates in forming new companies based on results of university research are important. Tensions between university and industry roles can arise here. Education remains the primary mission of the university, and research that supports the educational process must have the top priority in the university research agenda. Some voices call for educational programs to be targeted more sharply on industry needs, but industry must adjust its own approach to human resources development in order to work more effectively with academe.
For example, it might be necessary for larger numbers of company employees with a wider variety of corporate functions (manufacturing and design, as well as research) to spend extended periods of time on campus than has been the case in the past. That type of interaction would enhance the educational mission of universities and help to renew industry's technical knowledge base. Yet, because of the high degree of mobility among scientists and engineers in U.S. industry, today very few companies and individuals have the incentive to support or participate in such extended stays. Employees are concerned that extended time away from the company can hurt their career prospects, and companies
trying to remain as lean as possible are reluctant to do without employees who can contribute to meeting immediate needs for extended periods.
Universities will need to make adjustments as well, accepting medium-and long-term visitors who do not possess a significant publication record. Universities also might need additional flexibility to allow faculty and students the scope to move into industry on a temporary basis in order to do the final work on promising ideas (Spencer, 1990).
How can universities and industry develop new mechanisms that provide each side with the incentives necessary to expand cooperation? The semiconductor industry might provide important lessons for other sectors. The Semiconductor Industry Association engages in a road-mapping activity that identifies appropriate topics for research with time horizons of up to 15 years, and for many years companies have pooled resources through the Semiconductor Research Corporation to support academic research and advanced education. The SEMATECH industry research consortium also supports research on future manufacturing processes. Two recent initiatives by the industry are academic research centers at two leading universities working on design and interconnect issues for future semiconductor products (Nelson et al., 1996). Other industries might adapt such activities to their own circumstances.
Universities and government have also been developing initiatives. For example, the University of California recently announced its new Industry-University Cooperative Research program, a competitive-grants research program designed to help the state's economy by boosting productivity and creating jobs. The program focuses on applications of basic research that show the most promise for the development of new products and processes, allowing the university to accelerate the transfer of ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace. Funding for this initiative will be phased in; it will eventually attract $15 million per year in state support, a targeted $20 million per year in industry funds, and $5 million per year in university funds. The new program builds on existing efforts at the University of California to promote expanded research collaboration with industry in microelectronics, computers, and biotechnology.
With a favorable environment for entrepreneurial activity, the research university is a major U.S. asset in creating and applying new science and technology for economic growth. More extensive industry-university collaboration on long-term issues of interest to industry could help to alleviate the funding pressures being faced by universities and ensure that U.S. innovation has access to a strong stream of inventions, ideas, and skilled people in the next century. Universities and industry will both need to adapt if they are to ensure that collaboration delivers maximum benefits to each.
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