Innovation through Collaboration August 2013
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Collaboration between academia and industry is nothing new, but it is usually limited to one-off consultancy work or short projects. In recent years, the university-industry connection has started to change, producing more intimate and innovative relationships. The global financial crisis is spurring on this change. Companies require cheaper ways to find innovation, and universities require new sources of funding because cash-stricken governments are curtailing their spending. The financial crisis has crippled many governments, which can no longer provide enough funding for fundamental university-based research. Similarly, companies have scaled back their R&D budgets to cut costs. This situation becomes a vicious circle: Money is not available to fund research and innovation, but growth cannot occur without research and innovation. Companies need innovation to remain competitive in their markets, so they cannot afford to cease all funding for research and development. Universities can provide companies with a flexible, cost-effective innovation option, whereas in-house R&D departments need constant funding from companies. Universities benefit from these collaborations because companies are willing to fund university projects of interest to them.
To stay competitive, companies need to move outside of their internal R&D departments—not only to benefit financially, but also to take advantage of open collaboration's ability to unify ideas from parties with different backgrounds and experiences.
Some people feel that a lack of public interest in fundamental research is an underlying issue. Colombia University (New York, New York) biologist Stuart Firestein claims that members of the general public have fallen out of love with science because practitioners have presented science to them as a list of facts. Dr. Firestein believes that scientists should engage the public by presenting their work as a process of discovery. Industry also has its part to play in changing attitudes. By opening its doors to schools, industry can show students how science is put into action and the challenges it faces. However, public attitudes percolate through to governments, which currently view research only as a means to an end. Historically, conflicts and arms races have spurred governments to provide funding for research in attempts to demonstrate scientific superiority—the technology race of the Cold War is a prime example of this phenomenon. The race helped to advance both state-of-the-art weapons and fundamental science. At present, governments have less of an impetus to increase the budgets for research. According to physicist and Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim, global threats—such as global warming and food shortages—are still present, but people do not perceive them as imminent enough to warrant concern and action. Dr. Geim believes that a large threat such as "a huge cosmic rock on course to hit Earth in 50 years" would stimulate fundamental research and result in rapid innovation ("Be afraid, very afraid, of the world's technology crisis," Financial Times, 6 February 2013; online).
Universities find themselves without enough funding, and industry finds itself in need of research. Collaboration between the two sectors represents a mutual opportunity that some are beginning to capitalize on. For example, Cornell NYC Tech (New York City, New York), a new graduate school, is developing very close ties with industry. The school is a collaboration between Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) and the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa, Israel). When the construction of its massive Roosevelt Island, New York, campus is complete, the school will have offices for entrepreneurs, bringing industry right into the heart of academic research. Cornell NYC Tech encourages its staff to take time away from teaching to collaborate with companies, and students can also become involved in the work as part of their studies at the school. Because students will gain experience with cutting-edge research and develop contacts with companies, this collaboration will provide companies with laboratories, a workforce, and academic expertise. In turn, the industry-influenced courses will appear advantageous to prospective students, and the university could gain royalties from innovations created through the partnership with industry.
Some staff members at Cornell University are concerned that such close connections with industry may produce profit-driven research that neglects fundamental science. Concerns about intellectual property and ownership may also arise. Such issues are contentious in an academic setting. For example, the Prince George's County Public Schools' Board of Education (Upper Marlboro, Maryland) was looking to generate revenue from the work that the staff and students of the county's primary and secondary schools produce. The board proposed giving schools copyright ownership of their students' and employees' work, entitling the schools to any money that such work generates. Critics strongly opposed the board's proposal, saying that enacting the intellectual-property policy would stifle creativity. As a result, the proposal is no longer under consideration. To assuage concerns about university-industry partnerships, the involved parties might consider open-source collaboration.
Despite concerns that genuine innovation has been stalling, some reasons for optimism exist. To stay competitive, companies need to move outside of their internal R&D departments—not only to benefit financially, but also to take advantage of open collaboration's ability to unify ideas from parties with different backgrounds and experiences. Universities can be an excellent source of novel ideas; they have expertise and research facilities in place. During difficult financial times, universities could undoubtedly benefit from the funding that companies can provide. Fundamental research could also likely benefit from collaborative commercial projects because the money from such endeavors trickles down, enabling departments to buy equipment and allocate resources to basic research. If all partners take a suitably holistic approach, this type of close-knit collaboration could help innovation in general.