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Bridging Cultural "Divides" in the S&T Enterprise

Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here. I've been asked to reflect on my experiences in industry, academe, and, now, government and to pass along a few of the key lessons that I have learned along the way. I don't know whether this is suitable breakfast fare, but coffee is included.

I'll start with a few stereotypes.

  • Government research organizations: They are impartial organizations motivated by public good and responsive to national needs. Or, they're slow, lumbering, and unresponsive bureaucratic quagmires.
  • Industry research operations: These are fleet-footed, market-driven organizations that deliver value and utility. Or, they are merely extensions of business units, fixated on the short term and on the bottom line.
  • Finally, research universities: These institutions are bastions of independent inquiry that are wellsprings of new knowledge, discovery, and invention. Then again, universities also have been dismissed as ivy-covered towers, oblivious to real-world demands.

I'll use an acronym-VISTA-to organize my thoughts.

V is for VISION and mission. Arguably, vision and mission should be treated separately. But, it's early Sunday morning, and there shouldn't be any arguments.

Generally speaking, most organizations-public and private-aspire to be the acknowledged best performer in their realm of activity. Vision requires seeing the future through the eyes of your constituents or customers. After all, they do the performance grading.

NIST, for example, must glimpse the future through the eyes of industry. Our job is to anticipate the type of measurements and other infrastructural support that businesses require to bring new technologies to market and to sell them at home and abroad.

Students are the immediate customers of universities, followed by the businesses and other organizations that are the prospective employers of these future scientists and engineers. Occasionally, universities are criticized for not doing enough industrially relevant research.

Obviously, there is a balance to be struck here, and it's a difficult one to strike, at that. I think universities are growing into this role, mostly because of the awareness of young faculty members and, to a lesser degree, because of policy instruments, such as the Bayh-Dole Act. Still, well-trained students must remain the top priority of research universities.

Businesses view the future through the eyes of their stakeholders-mostly, current and potential customers. There appears to be no end to the stream of software products devoted to helping businesses do exactly that. Valuable as this customer intelligence is, it also serves to shorten the time horizons of industrial R&D, reducing it to months rather than a year or two.

"Mission" speaks to the important differences among the three elements of the nation's research enterprise. In my mind these differences are fundamental, but they should not divide. Obviously, industry, academia, and government have different roles, as do organizations within each of these domains. This collection of organizations with a rich diversity of roles determines the nation's capacity for innovation.

Mission, perhaps more than anything else, accounts for differences in culture. It determines why we do what we do. But, it does not dictate how we do it.

The "I" in VISTA stands for IMPACT, which is the same as return on investment. NIST aims for high social rates of return, which measure the contribution of our work to the economy. We deliberately intend for our research to be useful to many organizations. So we conduct studies that quantify this type of economic impact. We aim for social rates of return that exceed 50 percent, which was achieved in 18 of 21 projects studied thus far.

Universities concentrate on long-term returns and on the provision of public good, which can have many components-graduates, research publications, business spin-offs.

As this audience knows, industry evaluates its performance primarily on the basis of revenues, profits, and market share.

In all three domains, not just industry, impact no longer can be treated as some fuzzy concept. Metrics and strategic planning are no longer optional.

The "S" in VISTA refers to SYNERGY, or leveraging. Earlier I said organizational missions define what we do, but not HOW we do it. Today, self-sufficiency in R&D is not attainable-or even desirable. Research increasingly is multidisciplinary. It often requires many organizations to participate in planning and to harness different brands of expertise.

Collaboration, today, is key. In fact, in many organizations, partnerships with outside organizations are mandatory.

Industry uses consortia and other forms of collaboration to tap pools of expertise. Within industry, according to one report, corporate alliances increased at annual rate of about 25 percent during the 1990s.

For the NIST laboratories, fulfilling our measurement and standards responsibilities would not be possible without partnerships. Also, NIST's Advanced Technology Program-or ATP-has been a catalyst for collaboration.

In the words of the Industrial Research Institute: "One of the strengths of the ATP is that it encourages the formation of effective value chain partnerships" that accelerate technology development and commercialization.

Universities collaborate on many ATP projects, just one indication of how academic institutions work with businesses and government labs. Other examples are university-based Centers of Excellence funded by the National Science Foundation. They are required to have industrial partners.

Now, on to "T": TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER. This is a very mechanistic term for a dynamic process that is all about people and communication. It is part and parcel of leveraging and promoting synergy.

Management should encourage, facilitate, and reward efforts to diffuse knowledge, to look beyond disciplines and across markets, and to organize and disseminate information.

In academe, communication of research results has been a fundamental tenet. It's publish or perish. But there are other mechanisms, such as industrial sponsors. Most important, I believe, is the growing number of younger faculty members who can communicate in the language of their peers and in the language of industry. They are entrepreneurial and they have an awareness of industrial needs. As significant, they also have an awareness of financial incentives.

At NIST, we have had a visiting researcher program since the 1920s. Last year, about 1,600 visiting scientists and engineers from universities, companies, and other nations worked in our laboratories. This is one of the surest ways to diffuse knowledge and to accomplish joint technology goals. Technology transfer is not simply a tally of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs).

Industry converts discoveries and inventions into useful processes and marketable products and services. But if we have learned anything over the last three decades, it's that technology transfer is not linear-that industry cannot merely "cherry pick" the results of research. There's no long-term advantage in doing this, because competitors can do the same thing.

Companies must be drivers and integral contributors to the innovation process. There must be broad engagement in strategically selected areas. So even as industrial researchers tighten their focus on business objectives, industrial research organizations must open windows to the world.

This brings me to "A," which stands for ALIGNMENT.

Alignment is key to harnessing the capabilities and strengths of each sector and to achieving a greater good: industrial competitiveness, economic growth, productivity growth, less resource-intensive manufacturing processes, improved homeland security, and so on. It's a real challenge.

Industry responds to market signals.

Universities "follow the money"-funding opportunities.

Government laboratories pursue their missions.

We need vehicles for fostering unity of purpose without stifling diversity of action. Several already exist. Depending on the technology area or industrial sector, however, they have met with mixed success. Participation by all three elements of the research enterprise also has varied.

Some examples:

  • Industry technology road maps
  • National Nanotechnology Initiative
  • Standards development
  • National Homeland Security agenda
  • National consortia, councils, and forums.

I'll conclude with some observations:

We all must attend to the health of the research infrastructure: facilities and equipment. All sectors ignore this need at their own peril. An advanced infrastructure should be a collective priority.

Research dollars are limited, and federal funds must accommodate additional priorities, such as homeland security. We need to maximize each and every one of these dollars.

Organizational and technological complexity will continue to increase. Universities, businesses, industries, and government must interact continuously, through networks and other means, such as cooperative research projects, roadmaps, planning councils, and consortia.

In summary, we need to disabuse ourselves of the old stereotypes about the separate cultures of universities, government, and industry. Out of self-interest and national interest, we must work collectively to take full advantage of each component in our Science and Technology Enterprise.

It has become almost cliché to say that innovation is more about breaking down walls within organizations than it is about charting new paths. But it's true. And it's true for the entire S&T enterprise.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we all should march to the beat of the same drummer. That would be as foolish as advocating a centrally planned economy. Diversity is a strength. But I am suggesting that, in every sector-industry, academia, and government-we should be on the alert for opportunities to form ensembles, so to speak. Through dynamic collections or networks of know-how and resources we can succeed beyond the goals of individual organizations.

This is why we must look for "best practices," as we are doing here at this workshop, and why we must never settle for the status quo. Thank you. I look forward to our discussions.

Created October 7, 2009, Updated October 22, 2016