More than a century after Thomas Newcomen, a miner, and John Calley, his plumber assistant, invented the first useful steam engine, the French scientist Sadi Carnot developed the theory of thermodynamics to explain it. And in 1903, the bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight, but the underlying mathematics of aerodynamic theory were explained by a university scientist -- Ludwig Prandtl at Hannover University -- almost two decades later.
These examples from The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson, convey an important lesson about the relationship between application and theory that is relevant for future technological innovation -- and for research in universities in the United States.
Vannevar Bush, the director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development in the 1940s, articulated the inverse relationship between basic and applied research: universities play a critical role in developing the fundamental science that industry deploys to create products. Bush’s linear approach, which led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation, has powered innovation in the United States for decades. But America’s dominance of the innovation economy is currently at risk, and a new model is needed now more than ever.
Bipartisan concern about the erosion of America’s innovation dominance has led Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, to co-sponsor the Endless Frontier Act to invest $100 billion in research for emerging technologies. Echoing their apprehensions about “our national research and innovation enterprise,” Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, added his support for “the infrastructure that we need to support technology development.”
To more effectively harness the potential of research universities, whose basic research has enabled the development, among other products, of the iPhone, RNA vaccines and self-driving cars, we need a paradigm shift in higher education. The new approach begins with an affirmation of the centrality of discovery, but it explicitly recognizes the role of the marketplace in driving innovation and the marked decrease in the timeline between concept and product. It supplements and complements basic research with investments and expertise in feasibility assessment, design and transitions to commercial markets. This model does not treat exploratory (basic) and translational (applied) research as silos but, as Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, has proposed, like double-stranded DNA, multidirectional and mutually reinforcing.
Dependent on a shift in culture, hiring and allocation of resources within the academy, as well as a new kind of partnership with government and industry, this model calls for unified discovery and commercialization engines, or “D&CEs.” D&C engines in the university are transdisciplinary teams integrating expertise in physical and biological sciences, social sciences, engineering, humanities, business, and entrepreneurship, and which work with government, corporate and venture capital partners to develop next-generation products. Such teams are essential if we are to address global crises, including climate, energy, food, water, health, inequality and poverty.
In practical terms, the shift should be accompanied by changes in pedagogy and curriculum that expose students to business strategies, intellectual property concepts, patent protocols, marketing and supply chains, and experiential learning in companies.
Catalyzing the development of diversified local economies consisting of start-ups, step-ups and established companies will also yield opportunities for students and drive economic development in university towns and beyond. To encourage companies to stay local, universities should work with government officials to identify tax and other incentives.
As universities encourage collaborations between private companies and innovative faculty members, they need to find new ways, where appropriate, to “share” faculty with companies. Such partnerships retain talented faculty in the academy while providing them with opportunities to fully develop and commercialize their ideas.
Universities must also develop investment funds through a combination of philanthropy and venture capital to support the development of new discoveries, provide incubation space for the early proof-of-concept and de-risking stages, and work to identify co-location space for established companies. Seed and gap funding are crucial for validating early-stage technologies, strengthening intellectual property and bringing technology to the inflection point for further development.
Finally, where appropriate, as it increasingly is in computing and information science and genetics, universities should adopt “translational” achievements as metrics for faculty tenure and promotion and include commercialization as part of Ph.D. theses.
This new emphasis will not compromise indispensable institutional values, including independence of thought, dispassionate discovery and transparency. But adapting to the indivisible nature of discovery and application will be necessary to increase the volume and velocity of technology commercialization and start-up creation, nurture the next generation of innovators, catalyze economic development, and provide the wished-for returns on federally funded programs like the aptly named Endless Frontier.