New Challenges in Applied R&D Management

The global diversity and depth of applied R&D means that no company or mission-oriented government entity can cover the full spectrum of organization-critical applied research in house.  The requirement that research-dependent organizations look to partnerships, alliances, and consortia is made obvious by a quick review of the global research enterprise.

Over the course of the last 50 years R&D (and its worldwide companion industry of research-linked higher education) has grown much faster than industrialized population growth rates or worldwide GDP growth.  Worldwide R&D expenditures now exceed $1.1 trillion per year. [1]  While data from the 1960s and 1970s are not perfectly comparable, a reasonable estimate is that inflation adjusted worldwide R&D expenditures were less than 1/10 current levels (under $100 billion) as recently as 1970. [2]

Industrial and applied R&D dominates total global R&D expenditures.  In each of the four countries performing the most R&D – the US, Japan, Germany and China – companies both fund and perform between 66 and 78 percent of all R&D.

One gross measure of the global spread of applied R&D activity is the amount of foreign direct R&D investment by multinational companies and the existence of international trade in R&D.  Majority owned affiliates of foreign companies performed over $34 billion in R&D in the US in 2006 and US company owned affiliates (or the companies themselves) performed over $216 billion in R&D outside the US in 2006.

Foreign direct investment is paralleled by a steady growth in trade (R&D services purchased from a supplier in a different country).  In 2007, US imports of R&D services were $11.4 billion against exports (services sold to buyers overseas) of $14.6 billion.

Rapid growth and dispersion of applied R&D has been accompanied by worldwide growth in the institutions that perform applied research and development.  Assuming that approximately 75 percent of total global R&D is applied, then expenditures for applied R&D are about $825 billion per year.

With regard to applied research funders, there are probably less than 50 enterprises, almost all very large diversified multinational companies or national mission-agencies (e.g. defense), with applied R&D budgets of $5 billion or more and another 75 with applied R&D budgets of $1 to $5 billion.

If the average expenditure for the largest 125 applied research funders is $3 billion per year (this is less than is reported for IBM, Siemens, Merck or the US Department of Defense but more than is reported for DuPont or Royal Dutch Shell) then in excess of $450 billion of applied research is funded from sources spending less than $1 billion each year.

The distribution of applied research funders is probably heavily skewed toward smaller annual budgets, leading to the conclusion that there are literally thousands and maybe as many as ten thousand global funders of applied research and development.

Similarly, only the very largest, single-site applied research enterprises, such as a major corporate research or national laboratory facility, would exceed $500 million per year in research performed.  While there may be fewer very small performers of applied research it is apparent that the global population of applied research performers is at least several thousand.

As a consequence of the spread and diversity of performing institutions there is no quick and easy way to survey the full range of global applied R&D performers.  It is, however, useful to mention three broad and overlapping categories:

As a result of this growth and diversity, there is now widespread awareness among R&D leaders and managers that a large and increasing number of institutions and individuals around the world are a potential source of meaningful innovation and, therefore, potential competitors or partners.

Concepts and practices such as open innovation (Henry Chesbrough, Open Innovation, Harvard Business School Press, 2003), have become the gold standard for corporate innovation practices, replacing an older model that depended on the effective management of large, central, often stand-alone applied research laboratories.

Today the imperative is for enterprises that depend on applied research to be engaged as directly as possible in as many global streams of research as possible.  In practice this means that mission-oriented R&D groups are increasingly partnered or allied with an ever widening — and geographically dispersed — variety of applied applied research organizations, universities, and clusters that include both.

Getting value from these partnerships and alliances requires a new set of structures and organizational practices, creating an evolving set of challenges and needs for mission-oriented R&D entities.



[1]  Except where noted, the data in this post are drawn from NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, primarily Chapter 4, Research and Development:  National Trends and International Linkages

[2]  Trends in the Global Distribution of R&D since the 1970s:  Data, their Interpretation and Limitations (1970 -2010).   Elisa Around and Martin Bell.   2010, STEPS Working Paper 39, Brighton: STEPS Centre