Research Productivity: Who Discovers More, Academia or Industry?
[Posted on: Thursday, 21 January, 2016]
Time and again it has been debated if the public funding into academic research is justified in terms of the “return on investment”, namely, does academia generates enough products for general use compared to the R&D labs in industry. In a recent opinion piece in Wall St Journal, it was suggested that scientific innovation is not driven by academic research but by technological evolution in our knowledge over time. In other words, if there was no academic research, new products will still get developed due to industry catering to public need. The author uses a few documents including a report on R&D Productivity by the US Department of Labor that concluded that publicly financed R&D in academia led to zero returns compared to privately financed R&D that had significant returns to society. According to this report, at best university and government research contributes to economic growth only indirectly. Another report from Europe similarly concluded that publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever in the analysis of almost 30 years (1971-1998) of review of R&D productivity. These reports try to turn the argument in favor of academic research on its head. This is not a new argument made to criticize public funding of research and it seems it is based on a very narrow scale of the number of products generated directly by academic labs. Academic success on the other hand is focused on discovery. It can be said that a great discovery is judged by the breadth of its impact. In medical research particularly, translating discoveries into applications requires many expensive, highly regulated steps, which cannot be practically implemented at academic institutions because of the nature of the organization. Some of the best translations of academic findings to consumer products have happened with close collaboration between academia and industry. So, if a collaboration like this works, one cannot ignore the original source of the concept/idea. There is ample evidence that the collaboration works. Of course, if you count the total amount of public funding to the number of products, the numbers will not look so appealing. This has lead to some countries challenging funding of research. In the US however, there is strong public support for governments funding academic centers and that is not expected to change due to the minority opinion.