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The Key to Innovation? Invest in a Knowledge Economy

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Many far-reaching innovations were born and nurtured with the university setting serving as the incubator and the locus of brilliance. Facebook and Microsoft, Apple, Google, Medtronic, for example, all were hatched when their creators were barely into their 20s and their student days hardly in their rear view mirrors.

Universities have always played a major role in scientific and technological advances. But because federal research funding is in steep decline, they must dedicate themselves to a much more prominent role. In fact, the U.S. is in danger of losing its research and development primacy—the foundation of our nation’s knowledge economy—- unless universities, partnered with industry, can fill the R&D void.

“Our nation’s role as the world’s innovation leader is in serious jeopardy,” a group of nearly 200 university leaders wrote President Obama last year.

“The combination of eroding federal investments in research and higher education, additional cuts due to sequestration, and the enormous resources other nations are pouring into these areas is creating a new kind of deficit for the United States: an innovation deficit. Closing this innovation deficit—the widening gap between needed and actual investments—must be a national imperative.”

The practical impact of the gap is less prosperity in the U.S. and also difficult problems that affect humanity – hunger and disease, for example – remaining ever-present.

The innovation deficit can be closed, but to do so universities and industry will have to break down the scientific silos that inhibit collaboration.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences last year looked at how best to recalibrate the formidable powerhouse that is the U.S. research and development establishment. The Academy made some very pointed observations about rampant myopia at universities.

“The promise of interdisciplinary approaches has been noted for many years, and both universities and funding agencies have invested considerable effort into fostering such collaborations,” the report said.

“However, both universities and funding agencies continue to be characterized by inflexible disciplinary and mission boundaries…It is the dismantling of disciplinary boundaries, rather than ad hoc collaborations, that could transform the scientific enterprise and deliver  the potential to address previously intractable problems.”

Many research centers are mired in a culture of age-old discipline prejudices that inhibit, for example, engineers from working with physicians working with economists and life scientists. The irony is thick: the very institutions most equipped to help solve the world’s most pressing issues have tremendous difficulty solving the very basic human problem of working together.

In addition to breaking down research silos, the other necessary ingredient for success is to implement more innovative partnerships.

David Kappos, the former undersecretary for the Department of Commerce and former chief of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, underlines just such an approach.

“Federal support is only one step,” he wrote in Scientific American. “We must also encourage partnerships that combine the public resources of our government agencies and major research universities with investment of time and funding from private industry.”

While this “triple helix” approach of government, industry and academia working together is not new, “it has so far been mostly restricted to small, fringe projects many of them underfunded,” he adds.

Where I work at the University of Minnesota, we are aiming to both break down the research silos and facilitate innovative university-industry partnerships as we embark on a five-year program to transform our research enterprise in response to unpredictable federal funding.

One effort here in particular stands out for aligning research expertise of the university with that of some of our state’s economically significant industries. Under a program known as MnDRIVE, the state has allocated $18 million in recurring funds for targeted university research endeavors. With these funds, MnDRIVE provides the means for fostering what are called “Advanced Transdisciplinary Partnerships.”

These partnerships, which marry industrial know-how with academic brain power, are focused on working with industry across disciplines in such fields as robotics, securing the global food supply, treatments for brain conditions and mitigating environmental impacts.

The innovation that stems from a vibrant knowledge economy can’t wait for government money — the world’s problems are just too great. With global population expected to surge, with all the incumbent issues that portends for healthcare, food, housing, employment, regional stability, universities must step forward and play a central role in developing approaches to caring for that burgeoning population.

In short, universities must dedicate themselves to ensuring innovation continues, and as Harvard’s Michael Porter argued during an impassioned TED Talk last year, learn to “tap into the enormous resource pool and organizational capacity” of private industry to address our society’s greatest challenges.

Chart courtesy of Close The Innovation Deficit

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Contributing Writer

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