Universities are a crown jewel in the US innovation ecosystem. They are an engine for entrepreneurial activity, the glue that brings together government and industry to tackle the most challenging problems, and the source of talent needed to drive the economy. Universities also face a changing environment and numerous challenges associated with it including: cost increases that for a long time have exceeded changes in the cost of living; reduction in funding, especially from states to publicly funded universities; demographic changes that will reduce the number of domestic students attending; and, global competition in the development of cutting edge technology and their ability to attract top international talent.
The future of US universities has been addressed in national fora such as the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR)¹ and in other studies². This thought piece provides an industry view, primarily focused on R&D and talent development, although the connection to government is also considered in as much as it is a catalyst in the way universities and industry work together. We focus on the speed with which innovation is taking place, and the development of a flexible workforce ready to tackle real world problems.
Speed of innovation and the need for longer term horizons
In technology-driven industries, companies need to bring innovation to market at an increasingly fast pace, particularly in the digital realm. This drive for speed, which is reflected in many university-industry collaborations, has the detrimental effect of shortening the term horizon of the research being conducted on campus.
“Bringing real-world problems to faculty and students has benefits such as grounding of the technology developed at the university and exposing students to the type of challenges they will face in the workforce”
However, moving forward, it will be in society’s interest to ensure universities still work on science and technology without immediate applications. Care should be taken to secure funding sources for the development of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and the ability to conduct basic science needs to be preserved.
One way in which research with long term implications may be accomplished is through Grand Challenges, such as the ones started in 2004 by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on fully autonomous vehicles. These challenges motivated significant technology developments that are now reaching the market³. However, there are only a few such challenges being conducted, and their scope requires government participation. An effort should be made to identify areas where universities and industry can jointly define and drive these challenges, say Quantum Computing, where fragmented, short-term collaborations yield limited results.
Breaking down location barriers
Interaction between universities and industry is driven by somewhat competing interests that are reflected in standard master research agreements (MRAs). The most significant of these competing interests is intellectual property (IP), often the source of tension with both universities and industry claiming the need to protect IP, sometimes to the detriment of the relationship and even the self-interest of the parties.
In the US, the well-known and accepted NERF (non-exclusive royalty-free) licensing model is being changed to provide more flexibility. However, the new models still maintain barriers between university and industry. One of such barriers is the assumption that the work being done at the university is connected but not directly integrated into related work done at the company. There is no reason why this should still be the case. Colocation models, namely the free movement of people between campus and company labs, which remove these barriers are gaining traction. “A Guide for Navigating the Complexities of Co-Location”, published by UIDP4, defines the key attributes of collocation and the benefits derived by industry and universities. A key tenet in the colocation model may also prove critical for the second topic of interest in this article, namely workforce development.
A flexible workforce ready on day one
The current education model, especially the PhD degree, needs to be adapted to reflect the needs of the future workforce. Most PhD holders will find positions outside academia. Yet, it still common for these students to spend most of their time on campus, perhaps working on industry-sponsored projects, but still within the confines of academia. Internships and capstone projects partially address the challenge, but these models are still framed by conditions that guide existing agreements. For example, student interns assume the temporary role of a company employee then return to their primary role as students. The blurring of these roles, perhaps in the context of a colocation model, can simplify the process and give companies and students the ability to focus on long-term problems in a seamless fashion. In this respect the future of the US university is one in which both university and industry, not just the latter, assume responsibility for educating the workforce.
A good example of how this can be implemented are the recently announced New Jersey Innovation and Research Fellowships  which provide funds to encourage local companies to hire PhD students from New Jersey universities during the last year of the program. In this model students retain their affiliation to the university as PhD students while becoming full time employees of the company. The program’s impact cannot yet be assessed, but it is already forcing companies and universities to address questions such as “how will the IP generated during the fellowship be managed?” or “how do we ensure that students remain connected to the faculty and students in the lab where they initiated their research?” Because of our background and position in Siemens, the views expressed in this article are guided primarily by a future driven by science and technology. A broader analysis should be conducted into the future of the US university as generator and curator of general knowledge in areas that do not have a direct impact in the generation of economic activity or the development of a workforce that serves current societal needs.
1 GUIRR Meeting Summary, “Reimagining the University”, October 9-10, 2012, http://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/ groups/pgasite/documents/webpage/ pga_080215.pdf
2 V. Yeravdekar, R. Ghosh, S. M. Ghosh, “University of the Future Bringing Education 4.0 to life”, https://www. ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/ey-university-of-the-future/$File/ey-university-of-the-future.pdf
3 Davis, A, “Inside the races that jump-started the self-driving car” https:// www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/
4 UIDP Publications, Co-Locating Industry Personnel on University Campuses
Dr. Arturo Pizano is Program Manager, University Relations for Siemens Corporate Technology in Princeton,NJ. In this capacity he is responsible for establishing and maintaining relationships with US universities of strategic importance to Siemens’s R&D organization across the globe. Prior to his current position, Arturo was a part of the internal audit organization of Siemens as a member of the Operational Audit team. Arturo joined Siemens Corporate Research in 1993 as a Member of the Technical Staff in the Imaging and Visualization Department. He became Program Manager in Multimedia Communications and Collaboration and later Head of the Multimedia and Video Technology Department. Prior to joining Siemens, he worked as a Staff Scientist in the Software Research Center of Ricoh Corporation in Santa Clara, California. Arturo holds a B.Sc. in Actuarial Science from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California Los Angeles.