Daily Management Review

Will result-oriented short term research funding, provide the much needed scientific breakthroughs for tomorrow?


Today we are benefiting from the technological innovations which were funded decades ago through the foresight of public private partnerships. This long term perspective in funding research is not prevalent today. Which then raises the question – who will fund tomorrow’s next big scientific breakthrough?

Apps are key players in today’s market and they can determine the success or failure of a launch of a new device. Lots of importance and emphasis is given on creating clever apps for smart phones that generate a substantial returns for investors, but comparatively this sort of enthusiasm and interest is not invested in scientific endeavors which will enable us to meet the growing challenge of resource scarcity in the 21 century.

It is crucial to ensure that the coming generation of inhabitants of this planet has the necessary resources such as water, energy and food materials needed to have a sustainable quality of life. Unless steps are taken now in this direction, a plan B option, at a later stage may not be enough to save us.
Typically, big meaningful breakthroughs take time. For example, photovoltaic devices were invented in the mid 1950s. But it took all these years for the science to mature so that it can produce advanced research that is not only cost efficient but mature enough to support an explosion in worldwide adoption of solar installations.

In the past, many such researches have been funded through public private partnerships without any expectations of return of the money that has been funneled in to the research. This foresight now is now paying back rich dividends today. However, this approach of building a pipeline which funnels long term solutions is increasingly being replaced by profit-driven sort term motives. This then raises the very pertinent question – Who will finance the big breakthroughs of tomorrow?

Google, is one such company with long term vision and has an appetite to put men, material and money and invest in researching technologies outside of its core competencies. The range of it is current research include the length of human life, to modular smart phones to self-driven cars. However, here too, many of Google’s engineers point out, in retrospect, that their efforts were too focused on achievement of immediate benefits at the cost of more expensive long term goals.

In the past however, the research landscape was very different: corporates proudly funded research institutions such as IBM, Bell Labs, GE, Xerox Park, etc which ultimately resulted in fantastic breakthroughs. The inventions of transistors, which revolutionized the electronic industry, the computer mouse, silicon solar modular can all be traced back to these revered research institutions. Today however, this long term approach towards funding research is nowhere to be found. Most companies will cut their research and development budget the moment the business hits a speed bump.

Last month, Sir Richard Branson, brought in a ray of hope for the research industry, by introducing, what he terms as Plan B, which essentially is “a new blueprint for better business that prioritizes people and the planet alongside profit”.

Branson recognizes that development cycle can take a couple of years and even decades, before the breakthroughs and innovations yield results of financial benefits. Unless a support system is available for the developments of these early stages which can sustainably support ideas that can be tomorrow’s reality;  unless pilot projects are funded, the very question of mass production does not come up, thus it is of prime importance to continuously and sustainably fund long term research which can bring about a game changer and tip the world’s future and our consumption pattern towards sustainable growth and development.