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Unifying Efforts: Key Findings from the NSF Industry Partnerships Summit

March 5, 2024—How can government agencies expand research collaboration with industry? Answering that question was the impetus behind a groundbreaking meeting in April 2023, when UIDP convened over 60 science and technology leaders from nearly 50 leading companies at the U.S.  National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria, VA, for the NSF Industry Partnership Summit. Structured discussions at the event were synthesized in a report with a dozen key findings, providing food for thought for research leaders in both sectors. The findings describe common barriers to research engagement and are instructive for any government agency that seeks to partner with industry for co-funded research.

Why meet?

While NSF has historically supported fundamental research, primarily funding academia-based grantees, the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act expanded its mandate through the formal creation of the NSF Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate, which leverages the nation’s top researchers for use-inspired research to  ”advance critical and emerging technologies, address pressing societal and economic challenges, and accelerate the translation of research results from lab to market and society.”

TIP’s work cuts across NSF’s discipline-based directorates and promotes greater cross-sector partnerships to solve pressing research challenges. With TIP in the lead and supported by the other directorates, the NSF Industry Partnership Summit assembled participants from all NSF offices and directorates to meet with–and listen to–industry leaders from diverse sectors.

Three key objectives framed the summit: developing a strategy for partnering across research, workforce development, and infrastructure; identifying companies across sectors that are highly interested in pursuing deeper discussions on partnership opportunities; and expanding industry awareness of the opportunities for public-private partnerships for research and workforce development.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan addresses a question at the NSF Industry Partnership Summit

Key findings

The summit uncovered current challenges and a number of recommendations to make cross-sector collaboration and funding more accessible for industry. Most importantly, companies need lighter burdens (paperwork and timelines) to engage NSF. Unlike universities, they need straightforward channels to learn about opportunities so they can effectively collaborate. Regular engagement with NSF program managers can help foster connectivity and allow industry representatives to shape funding opportunities and build informed roadmaps, as well as support communication between the two parties.

Funding research closer to industry interests can help incentivize engagement; summit participants identified projects at technology readiness levels of three or higher to be good candidates to transition to translational research. Concentrating these efforts across agencies can help pool more resources and accelerate progress.

For all but the largest companies, internal resources are not readily available to develop and manage co-funded research projects. Small and medium-sized companies and startups, which could offer valuable ideas, facilities, and capabilities in a range of research areas, could also benefit from new on-ramps that allow new partners to participate in established programs, but at lower funding levels. Summit participants also explored how improving processes and support tools can help to foster more robust industry collaborations.

More generally, there is a need for NSF to move faster and communicate more directly with industry. In response, NSF has developed an industry-facing web page that lists funding and partnership programs specifically aimed at industry.

The full summit report is available on the UIDP website and includes an executive summary, background, key findings, and more.

Why it matters

Cross-sector partnerships are a unique opportunity to leverage the expertise, resources, and ideas from multiple parties to accelerate technology development, bolster the nation’s security, address global challenges, and support workforce and economic growth. The NSF Industry Partnership Summit uncovered topical research needs, identified key challenges and opportunities in partnership, and discussed new approaches to partner across government, industry, and academia more effectively.

We want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the key findings from the NSF Industry Partnership Summit? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.