Carnegie Mellon president: industry is failing to fund basic research

Subra Suresh fears that business short-termism, increasing research costs and worries over cybersecurity are undermining the incentives to invest

February 1, 2016
Male scientist using tablet computer in laboratory
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Evolution: the pace of technological change requires more frequent upgrades

Companies are failing to invest in basic research, the president of Carnegie Mellon University has warned, meaning that it is more vital than ever to convince politicians and the public of the need for government support.

Subra Suresh, who from 2010 to 2013 served as the director of the National Science Foundation, told Times Higher Education that industry funding was now “more D in R&D than R”.

As a young researcher, Professor Suresh recalled that it was common to hear researchers from private firms deliver a technical paper at a conference.

Now, “there are very few companies that do this”, he said.

Several trends explained this shift away from basic research in the US, including “increasing pressure to focus on the short term rather than long term” in the corporate world, he said.

Much greater government investment in science – including from new economic powers such as China and India – also meant that it cost businesses far more to maintain a scientific lead than it had in previous decades.

“It’s possible in some areas that the level of investment it takes to do this is so severe that the easy thing to do is invest in what you need for the next few years,” he explained.

The increasing speed of technological change meant that expensive infrastructure had to be upgraded more often, he added, while fears over cybersecurity meant companies were worried about being able to hold on to the fruits of their research.

Another reason for industry disinvestment was that “increasingly in some subjects you have greater numbers of authors per paper and they are much more international”, he said, meaning that companies feared that they would “lose control” of the research and be unable to profit from the results.

Professor Suresh harked back to a time when “[private] scientists competed with university faculties on basic research”.

He pointed to the past success of the legendary Bell Labs, a research centre once owned by the telecoms firm AT&T, which from the 1920s to the 1970s produced breakthrough after breakthrough, including the invention of the transistor. Its scientists have won seven Nobel Prizes for Physics.

However, by 2008 it was being reported that the lab had all but stopped fundamental physics research, although the new owners, Alcatel-Lucent, claimed that it had shifted efforts to subjects such as mathematics and computer science.

By 2009, a record 80 per cent of industry R&D spending was being devoted to development rather than research, according to statistics compiled by Joseph Kennedy, a former US government economist. The proportion going to applied research had more than halved since a record high of 31 per cent in 1958.

Spending on basic research was about 7 per cent of industry R&D in the 1950s and early 1960s but had dipped below 5 per cent ever since – with the exception of upturns in the late 1980s and 1990s, and in 2009.

Dwindling industry support for basic research was a major worry that emerged from a panel discussion that included Professor Suresh on 23 January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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