The Rise of Global Networks of Applied RD&D

The density of talent, experience, knowledge, and creative approaches that 30 years ago existed primarily within a few hundred institutions in a small number of countries now exists as a dense network of working relationships among globally dispersed individuals and institutions.

In many fields of science, this is not news.  For example, in the earth sciences, global multiparty collaboration has been the norm for decades.  Human understanding of climate, oceans, volcanoes, earthquakes, space and ecology depend on sharing data and approaches across both institutional and national borders.  International and inter-institutional collaboration in these fields, both informal and formal, grew in parallel with the development and dispersion of scientific research enterprises in the post-World War II era.

The motivation for collaboration and exchange was both idealistic (there are lots of examples of “science diplomacy”) and pragmatic as collaboration and exchange was necessary to advance scientific understanding.  The economic case for a global RD&D network, including globally dispersed work and costs shared among private and public actors, is simple.   On the one hand, the expense of adaptation RD&D for any individual nation, region, city or company is likely exceed the value (return on RD&D investment) that can be captured by a single entity.  On the other hand, the total social benefit  of solutions applied throughout the world will likely vastly exceed the cost of the RD&D.

The most pronounced shift in recent years has been in globalization of the applied sciences and engineering.  Multinational corporations and governments now regularly operate or participate in applied global RD&D networks, often with a significant portion of the research performed by university-based researchers (See, for example, A Vision for the Future of Center-Based Multidisciplinary Engineering Research: Proceedings of a Symposium, National Academy Press, 2016).   As a result, there is an emerging tool kit for international applied RD&D collaboration that includes promising approaches, lessons learned or best practices in almost every aspect of RD&D collaboration including:

  • Governance and management of RD&D collaborations;
  • Research programming and shared/split funding;
  • The role of industry and of industry- or practitioner-defined problems;
  • The role of education and the diffusion of knowledge through personnel movement, researcher exchanges (faculty, industry, post-docs, doctoral students, MS students);
  • Knowledge ecosystem design including mirror sites and shared operations;
  • Synchronous and asynchronous digital collaboration; and 
  • Intellectual property sharing agreements.

In sum, global networks of applied RD&D are the new norm in corporate, government, and civic enterprises.  These mission-focused organizations rely on in-house and outside (sourced) talent and on inter-organizational collaboration, structuring these efforts around an applied research mission, market opportunity, or civic need.