Issue Date: May 14, 2007
Our maturing large chemical industry has streamlined to reduce internal basic research and development costs. Part of the process has been to take a more critical cost-benefit look at supported university research and tie expectations more closely to research funding. The industry has significantly shifted focus to shorter term development cycles and, therefore, to more applied and less basic research support.
U.S. universities do not often perceive it as being in their best interests to go into more applied areas, contrary to their mission of more basic investigations of the scientific world. Perhaps not all universities are so constrained, however (C&EN, March 19, page 25).
Those who think there are significant distinctions made by industry between university research in the U.S. and the rest of the world are myopic. Companies with global reach go to those doing the work or with the right capabilities. Choices are not and have not been limited to the U.S. for some time. Increasingly, universities with less negative responses to working with focused industry support on the applied side are being funded.
Whether or not this is a corruption of the university concept in the minds of some, it is a reality: We are a world without borders. Why would we not expect the same shift to offshore research when our manufacturing has shifted to leaner, hungrier places? It is arrogant and dangerous to assume the U.S. or the Western world has a corner on good science. In the context of free trade, should we not ask why U.S. institutions are losing ground in privately funded research competitiveness globally?
This global shift is occurring at a time when there is a sea change in how we are doing chemistry when even more research and development work is needed and we are retooling as an industry. There is an increasing need for interdisciplinary work in those messy places between different sciences and applied technologies. There is valid, foundational work to be done in this middle ground. Not everyone wants to fill the costly, less neatly defined, industrially significant research and development gap, but someone will find a way to work out the terms and do it. That is where industry will continue to go.
Debora F. Bergstrom
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