A Quiet Success Story
The Engineering Research Centers program shows how to organize innovation and improve STEM education.
Opinion by Sara Jansen Perry, Steven C. Currall, Ed Frauenheim, and Emily M. Hunter
China’s rising technology capabilities. A recent decline in federal research and development funding. Slow job and wage growth.
These trends raise deep concerns about the health of America’s innovation ecosystem and therefore about the country’s long-term prosperity. To counter these disquieting developments, university, industry, and government leaders have been seeking new ways to stimulate technological breakthroughs. But a successful model has existed under their noses for years: the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Centers. Now in its third decade, the university-based program not only has proved to be a cost-effective way to spark new technology platforms; it also has shown how to enhance engineering education and better equip our technology workforce.
NSF launched the ERC program in 1985 with a mission to strengthen the competitiveness of U.S. firms through improved research and education. Although the program has evolved over the years, its central tenets remain an emphasis on interdisciplinary research, close collaboration between industry and academia, and a focus on bringing university discoveries to the commercial realm. Innovative student training is woven throughout.
Key aspects of ERCs include a longer-than-usual decade of funding, the creation of cross-disciplinary teams bridging multiple universities, and a dedicated industry liaison role. In effect, the program marked an early attempt to move away from business as usual in federally funded science and engineering research at universities, where scholars rarely collaborated, industry rarely got involved, and projects rarely aimed to create solutions to real-world problems.
We recently completed a nearly 10-year study of the ERC program, and have been struck by the lessons it offers. Though small in scale, this little-known initiative has paid impressive dividends. From 1985 to 2009, the federal government invested roughly $1 billion in about 50 centers. They have returned more than 10 times that amount in a wide variety of novel technologies. ERCs have paved the way to advanced mobile phones though a breakthrough in electronics miniaturization, produced foundational techniques in biotechnology, and developed an artificial retina that restores a form of sight to blind people.
Even as it has churned out remarkable, economically important innovations, the ERC program also has provided a model of better engineering education and workforce development. ERCs expose students more fully to the real-world practices of engineering, largely through frequent interactions with industry partners. The Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power based at the University of Minnesota, for example, holds webcasts every other week in which graduate students from various partner universities share their progress on research projects with an audience that often includes engineers and managers from partner companies.
In addition, the ERC program emphasizes infusing engineering curricula with knowledge derived from each center’s interdisciplinary projects. A 2006 NSF study found that 60 percent of the new courses introduced through ERCs had multidisciplinary content as well as a “systems” focus.
The education results have been stellar. In a 2004 independent report, nearly nine in 10 company supervisors said former ERC students and graduates were better prepared to work in industry than equivalent hires without ERC experience. Almost 75 percent of those supervisors said employees with ERC experience were better able to develop technology. Our study of the ERC program found that hiring students with ERC experience is one of the most prized benefits for companies working with the centers.
What’s the ERC secret sauce? We believe it can be summed up in the phrase “organized innovation.” Those two words are rarely heard together, especially in a U.S. culture that tends to see inventions as the province of lone-wolf geniuses working exclusively in the private sector. But by channeling the curiosity of academic researchers toward research that can have societal impact, fostering cooperation across traditional boundaries, and orchestrating the commercialization of novel technologies, ERCs have shown the power of smart coordination among government, universities, and business to not only generate new technologies so vital to good jobs and economic growth in the short run, but also to better prepare engineering students to help America thrive in the future.
The ERCs and initiatives like them are a wise bet. We believe government leaders ought to devote a greater share of federal R&D funds to programs that embody organized innovation principles. We encourage university leaders, including engineering education deans and faculty, to explore creating or joining an ERC or similar collaborative research centers. And we urge industry leaders to participate in these centers – boosting their own competitiveness even as they support research and education activities.
The challenges of international competition, federal belt-tightening, and disappointing wage and job growth are real. But America can take heart. The ERC program points the way to jump-start prosperity.
Sara Jansen Perry, Steven C. Currall, Ed Frauenheim, and Emily M. Hunter are the co-authors of Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity.