In This Issue
Engineering Partnerships
September 1, 1996 Volume 26 Issue 3/4
The Bridge, Volume 26, Number 3/4, Fall-Winter 1996

On Basic Research

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Panel Discussion

To close out the symposium, four distinguished panelists (Marye Anne Fox, Thomas Malone, David Goldston, and Linda Cohen) were asked to make brief presentations on various aspects of government-university-industry partnerships. Short excerpts from these talks appear below next to the speakers' individual photos(not shown). Following their talks, the panel and the symposium audience engaged in a lively question-and-answer session. Also below is an edited portion of one part of that exchange that focused on the importance of basic research. NAE member John Armstrong, retired vice president for science and technology, IBM, moderated the discussion. Lyle Schwartz, also an NAE member, is director, Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory, National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Lyle Schwartz: Let me make two statements that I don't quite agree with myself but that are commonly used to argue about the likely failure of government-university-industry partnerships. The first relates to the issue of the time focus of the three sectors. The presumption, generally, is that universities are looking so far ahead and industry is so focused on short-term problems--with government labs somewhere in the middle--that there is a basic incompatibility. The second comment, closely related to the first, is that if industry is more focused on product and maintaining competitive position, and federal laboratories are focused increasingly on well-defined missions related to the agencies they support, then universities are the last bastion for long-term basic research. Yet, now we are asking universities to work on problems that industry cares about. Who, then, is going to do the fundamental research?

Marye Anne Fox: From my perspective, that's an eloquent argument for continued federal investment in basic research. Universities do have a unique role. To the extent that they resist pressures from their industrial collaborators to become very narrowly focused, I think they have the opportunity of filling just the role that you have described. It is, of course, not circumscribed that national laboratories would do the same sort of thing. The kinds of personnel that exist in these labs certainly have the ability to contribute to basic science.

Although it is unrealistic to expect industry to step in to fund university research across disciplines at a level comparable to what the federal government has provided, there are still many focused opportunities for collaboration. If industry looks to special, local expertise within universities, such investments make sense. However, a focus on local strengths means that universities cannot be all things to all industries and that, increasingly, they will have to concentrate on developing their core competencies.

Thomas Malone: We're in the business of creating new ideas in research. I think it's a great fallacy to think that we aren't smart enough to figure out how to bring together our tremendously creative thinkers in the academic arena, in our government labs, and in business and not make the right decisions when we start talking to each other. The problem is, we kind of decide that everybody is going to do the wrong thing, so we don't talk to each other. You heard Bob Galvin use the word "trust." You can't have partnerships among universities, industry, and government without trust. You've got to start with the premise that each partner has fundamentally different strengths. Our job as leaders is to figure out how to link those strengths, to have each partner do the things that they are better at than anybody else. Then, I think, we can come to a consensus and can convince the government to support us.

I am a strong proponent of collaborative research among industry, universities, and government. Such research is particularly appropriate and valuable for an industry like textiles, which is very fragmented and does not have giant companies to provide the critical mass for R&D. Research collaboration is vital to our industry's long-term competitiveness.

David Goldston: I think there is a sense in Congress that basic research is important. But there has never been, at least consciously, support of science for science's sake within the U. S. government, even though everyone has been willing to let that happen and universities seem to think that's what Congress is supporting.

The fact is that with a 7-year balanced budget, support of research and development across the board is going to go down over the next 5 years, no matter who is in office. It is a mistake to assume that the bad things that happen to science are based on something related to science. In fact, they are the result of residual arithmetic decisions tied to the balanced budget agreement. If people don't like that, then they need to talk about the budget, not insist that they need their little piece of the pie to grow. Let me remind you that science has actually, so far, done much better than almost any other portion of the discretionary budget.

The issue is not that members of Congress don't understand the importance of science and technology in guaranteeing American prosperity and growth. What they don't understand, by and large, is the federal role in achieving those goals. That is true both for general science funding and for the more technology-oriented partnership programs.

Linda Cohen: I think that it's even more important now than previously for the public sector to be funding basic research. The consequence of greater competition in industry has been a tremendous increase in applied research and in innovation, with resulting benefits to social welfare. At the same time, however, we have seen a decline in industrial support for basic research. You can't get electric utilities to think about a 20-year investment in research at this point. They are worried about going into competition with other electric utilities and what is going to happen in the next 6 months. The structure of their research programs has changed dramatically.

A key word for the 1990s is complementarity, which economists define as the state of affairs when combining the activities of different institutions enhances the benefits to all. However, even though the ideas of collaborators may well complement each other, it is very often the case that the incentives, constraints, or culture of their respective organizations are in direct conflict.

John Armstrong: The notion that everything that goes on in the university has a long-term focus simply isn't right. And, although it is true that over the last few years a number of our major industrial labs have decreased their investment in fields they have traditionally been very strong in, the major thing that they have done is change the mix of their portfolios. In other words, they have shifted resources among particular long-term programs, as well as altered the range of applied research they conduct. Such shifting is done with difficulty, but it is done in industry; it is very hard to do in universities and in the agencies that support research.

People need to stop confusing a redistribution of effort and a wringing out of inefficiencies in the system with some sort of wrong-headed abandonment of basic research by industry. There are some cases of that, but the myth that this is happening all over just doesn't fit with reality.

About the Author:Marye Anne Fox is vice president for research, University of Texas, Austin. Thomas Malone is president and COO, Milliken & Company. David Goldston is legislative director, Office of Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.). Linda R. Cohen is professor of economics, University of California at Irvine.