Survey: Majority of Americans believe research universities drive U.S. innovation

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As U.S. investment in long-term scientific research wains compared to foreign competitors, a majority of Americans are looking to research universities to drive innovation, according to a survey released by the University of Chicago. In turn, universities need to get better at helping students and faculty commercialize the technology they create, the authors said.

Published by the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on May 2, the Innovation Indicator survey found that 71 percent of Americans “believe research universities are a ‘major force’ in driving U.S. innovation,” more than the number who said that of corporations, businesses, or governments.

“Big research universities have always been involved in innovation,” said Eric Isaacs, the University of Chicago’s vice president for Research, Innovation, and National Laboratories, “but what’s really changed is that other industries, like pharmaceuticals, are doing less research, so the universities are stepping up to fill the void.”

According to Isaacs, a significant amount of large corporations are finding it easier and cheaper to simply purchase new, smaller companies that have already done the research necessary to produce innovative technologies.

One of the challenges facing research universities amid declining research projects in the private sector, is helping innovators enter the marketplace. “Universities are great at research,” said Isaacs, “but not commercializing stuff. We need to be supporting student innovators and giving them the tools to succeed on the business side.”

The survey also found that only 1 in 4 Americans view the United States as the global leader in innovation. Included in the survey were the results of Bloomberg’s 2018 Innovation Index, which placed the United States out of the top 10 most innovative economies for the first time in the report’s history.

“China is a real threat,” said Isaacs. “The Chinese are about to surpass the United States in investment in science and applied sciences. As America’s GDP has grown, we’ve actually been spending less on science less per percentage of growth, and it’s science that makes all the difference.”

Isaacs said that short term budget fluctuations in the United States, and the subsequent inability to establish long-term fiscal plans, have hurt the country’s standing as one of the world’s top innovators.

“We don’t have the national commitment to science and innovation that we used to have,” he said, “but I’m still hopeful. The U.S. has some truly great scientists and entrepreneurs on its side.”

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