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United for Impact: Industry Collaboration in Government-Funded Research

August 22, 2023 — While basic research has long been the cornerstone of scientific exploration, the current emphasis on addressing societal and economic challenges and creating tangible research applications has given way to a surge in new government programs and initiatives. One example is the CHIPS and Science Act, which made historic investments into science and technology and authorized the creation of a new directorate focused on cross-cutting partnerships to accelerate use-inspired research. These new priorities focus heavily on triple-helix collaboration, utilizing expertise, resources, and experience from academia, industry, and government entities to drive innovation in critical and emerging technologies.

Shifting tides

Government agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) have a long history of investing in basic research and building a solid foundation for use-inspired research. Pressing global challenges (e.g.,  climate change and renewable energy) are complex, demanding a diverse array of expertise, resources, and experience that can best be achieved through triple-helix collaboration. The United States has created programs and funding opportunities to cultivate cross-cutting partnerships that can leverage the different strengths of industry, academia, and government entities. The CHIPS and Science Act activated the NSF and the Department of Commerce to develop large-scale funding awards (NSF Regional Innovation Engines and the Department of Commerce Tech Hubs) designed to not only advance use-inspired research in key technology areas but also to enable job training and creation, and entrepreneurial business growth in regions where investment is envisioned to reinvigorate the economy.

New pathways for industry collaboration

NSF is a major government funder of scientific research in the United States, awarding over 10,000 grants in FY22 totaling over $8.5 billion. Over the past several years, NSF has partnered with companies to co-fund or collaborate in research where both government and industry innovation goals align. The new NSF directorate, the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), represents the greatest investment in triple-helix partnerships to date. The directorate is charged with advancing U.S. competitiveness by fostering partnerships that leverage, energize, and rapidly bring society use-inspired research and innovation. While most NSF directorates focus on a single research domain, such as biology or engineering, TIP cuts across all the directorates, integrating and working closely with the other directorates to forge and support partnerships with industry, government, academia, and nonprofits. NSF and the TIP directorate recently hosted its first-ever industry partnership summit and, in response to feedback during the summit, created a page on its website for companies to easily connect to the different programs in which industry can participate.

UIDP has also curated an easy-to-navigate web page for member organizations to find information about government funding opportunities with a role for industry, from workforce development funding to programs in which industry can lead a research project. The page includes links to programs, program descriptions, and how industry partners are involved. The page highlights additional resources, including the Joint Solicitations Comparison Tables that offer details about funding levels, number of awards per solicitation, and exact IP language from a representative set of past NSF-company joint solicitations.

Of course, NSF is not the only U.S. agency embracing more engagement with industry for innovation and technology development. The U.S. Department of Energy, especially its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E),  funds transformational energy technology projects that often encourage diverse, cross-sector research teams. Eligibility differs among funding opportunities, but universities, national laboratories, industry, and individuals are often eligible to apply for and lead ARPA-E funding awards. Programs like the NSF Engines and the Department of Commerce Tech Hubs only accept applications from consortia, including some combination of academia, industry, government, and community nonprofit entities. The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing USA Institutes offers a range of engagement opportunities from industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations through its various institutes focusing on specific technology domains.

Why it matters

Industry pursuit of innovation and discovery often intersects with government’s priorities for addressing complex societal and economic issues. For new partnerships to grow and thrive, industry needs an easy path to engage meaningfully with government for research and development. NSF’s new gateway page for engaging with industry is an important step; another would be cross-posting opportunities for collaboration on platforms with high visibility among the industry partners it seeks. This strategy could help bridge the gap between basic and use-inspired research findings and the new technology, processes, and products that benefit society.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about increasing government interest in university-industry partnerships? 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.