The changing research landscape

President Joseph E. Aoun delivered the keynote address at the annual Engi­neering Research and Inno­va­tion Con­fer­ence of the National Science Foundation on Monday.

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said on Monday after­noon at the Hynes Con­ven­tion Center that the Amer­ican system of higher edu­ca­tion is the world’s best, but then he struck a note of caution.

“Our system is at a crit­ical inflec­tion point, driven by sev­eral dis­rup­tive forces, accel­er­ated by tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tions and inten­si­fied by a stag­nant economy,” Aoun explained.

He addressed nearly 1000 stu­dents and researchers who gath­ered to hear his keynote speech at the National Sci­ence Foundation’s annual Engi­neering Research and Inno­va­tion Conference.

The uni­ver­sity is hosting the con­fer­ence, which is focusing on trans­forming the engi­neering field through the for­ma­tion of robust part­ner­ships with acad­emia, industry and society.

In his opening remarks, Stephen Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs, called this year’s theme timely and important.

“An indi­vidual working in a single dis­ci­pline cannot find solu­tions to prob­lems such as those in health, secu­rity and sus­tain­ability,” he added. “Rather, finding solu­tions to today’s prob­lems requires inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, often geo­graph­i­cally diverse teams as well as part­ner­ships with gov­ern­ment, industry and other universities.”

Aoun said fed­eral research and devel­op­ment funding for col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties reached $427.2 bil­lion last year, but noted that the num­bers are actu­ally declining if viewed as a per­centage of gross domestic product.

Emerging nations such as China and India, Aoun said, are com­pounding the chal­lenges facing higher edu­ca­tion by investing heavily in uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion and research and cre­ating intense global com­pe­ti­tion for talent and research dollars.

But funding chal­lenges is not the only hurdle that must be cleared. The very nature of the prob­lems that today’s researchers are attempting to solve are more com­pli­cated and require more resources and cre­ativity, Aoun explained, adding that these insti­tu­tional obsta­cles are also opportunities.

Embracing new part­ner­ships, he said, would go a long way toward addressing these com­plex issues and over­coming the finan­cial and global pressures.

Aoun acknowl­edged sev­eral forms of part­ner­ships, including those with domestic and for­eign industry groups, as well as with national and inter­na­tional research institutions.

Of indus­trial part­ner­ships, Aoun said, “As we enter into agree­ments with industry and as the rela­tion­ship evolves, we need to reach an appro­priate bal­ance between col­lab­o­ra­tion and control.”

Within acad­emia, he noted, we must pro­mote an entre­pre­neurial approach that tran­scends the ivory tower, rethinking eval­u­a­tion processes and strength­ening insti­tu­tional sup­port for inter­dis­ci­pli­nary partnerships.

Aca­d­emic researchers ben­efit from longer time­frames, greater risk tol­er­ance and a breadth and depth of exper­tise unpar­al­leled by gov­ern­ment and industry, he said.

“Uni­ver­si­ties have made incal­cu­lable con­tri­bu­tions to solving national and global chal­lenges in the past, and they are uniquely posi­tioned to do so in the future,” Aoun said.