Recently, there have been exciting announcements about innovative breakthrough technologies, including 3-D printing, wearable smart watches and “nano” drug delivery capabilities. These and other cutting-edge technologies hold great promise. Enhancing the base of their development through collaboration, investment in the next generation of scientists, and “technology foraging” will fuel the manufacturing engines that transform our economic future and quality of life.
With the downturn in the economy and sequestration, spending on reasearch and development has suffered. But there are pathways that can help rectify the shortcomings in R&D investment, lessen redundancy and accelerate success.
One step is to establish greater collaboration among the three pillars of industry, academia and government.
The cornerstone of collaboration should be based on knowledge transfer; sharing of research tools, methodologies and findings; and combining mutual funding resources to meet shortfalls. This can be accomplished by combined public/private-sector policy and working group initiatives that will eventually lead to formal strategies and implementation.
The federal government is the largest funder of R&D. There is no better resource than the government’s national labs for employing cooperative partnering and smart technology foraging. The nation’s 40 federally funded R&D centers spent over $18 billion on research and development last year. Those labs are composed of the best and brightest scientific minds.
Academic spending on R&D amounts to more than $12 billion a year. Universities often partner with corporations and government agencies in pursuit of robust and agile development of new discoveries. Nonprofit organizations also contribute to that funnel through grants and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.
Last year, U.S. industrial R&D spending was around $280 billion. Private-sector investment is a major component of building a successful pipeline and bringing innovative and viable products to market. Funding projects in closer coordination with government and academia will allow for more focused and more capable technology development.
Also, there is a variety of industry organizations and associations that can help bridge public/private-sector gaps and participate in the formulation of collaborative policy frameworks.
The future is dependent on the next generation of thinkers. Programs to foster scientific learning and knowledge should be encouraged at early ages, and the rising generation needs to be trained through STEM programs. New digital tools for manufacturing, discovery and modeling are rapidly evolving computational capabilities that can also affect STEM. Beneficial results are increasingly being recognized in diverse areas, including health, energy, security, materials sciences, transportation and consumer products.
STEM programs need to further tap into these new tools and expand accordingly. STEM can help us cultivate the next Einstein.
Technology foraging, or searching for smart ideas and technologies that are in prototype development, should also be a key element of a collaborative umbrella. Hidden treasures of inventions and intellectual property are waiting to be discovered, commercialized and licensed. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security established the Technology Foraging Office to canvas patents, journals, labs, forums looking for adaptable ideas and early-stage technologies for the homeland security mission. The DHS foraging initiative can and should serve as model for a more encompassing, collaborative treasure map across industry, academia and government agencies. New advances in big-data analytics can also make technology scavenging a much easier task to accomplish.
The future holds the promise of genetic engineering and regeneration of body parts, cures for diseases, augmented reality, robotics, renewable energies, big data, digital security, quantum computing and paper-thin flexible personal computers. A concerted focus on collaboration, STEM education and tech foraging can bring about a seismic shift in breakthrough product discoveries and commerce. Such cooperation could speed up the realization of the next industrial revolution and bring benefits beyond our expectations.
Chuck Brooks is vice president/client executive for the Department of Homeland Security at Xerox and a former legislative affairs director for DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate.