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Global Minds Think Alike

Companies are doing research abroad, while foreign IHEs are attracting more and more students. How can U.S. research universities remain competitive?
University Business, Sep 2005

Research institution leaders who keep on thinking that any company is dying to spend its research dollars on their institution just might wind up in the dog house (or somewhere close to it). Or at least that's what one university president believes.

Today, a U.S. research university has to contend with distinguished IHEs abroad that have qualified students and lower costs of conducting research and developing innovative products. This, in turn, has driven companies to venture abroad for research talent. It has even spurned some foreign companies that do their own R&D.

This raises the question: How can U.S. research universities remain competitive in a world where foreign IHEs and governments can be just as innovative and attract companies to fund research? The answer lies in a talk President G. Wayne Clough of Georgia Institute of Technology gave at July's annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers in Baltimore, Md.

"The new frontiers are in the realm of ideas, a space that universities should help to lead," he said. Clough thinks interdisciplinary collaboration is at the "heart of innovation."

According to a Council of Graduate Schools study, between 2003 and 2004, U.S. grad schools experienced a 28 percent decline in international student applications. Meanwhile, only six out of the world's 25 most competitive IT companies are headquartered in the U.S., Clough noted. This is a double-edged sword for American research institutions, which have played a large role in America's rise as technological innovator.

Clough explained that major universities had always thought of themselves in international terms, "but in the past our position allowed us to dictate the terms of play. We were able to pick and choose from the best of a long list of international-student applications, and we knew that our corporate partners were largely confined to U.S. universities for first-rate research."

Now, corporate partners are going overseas more. "We are a victim of our success; We developed a series of protocols as we succeeded," he noted. Every time something new was invented in partnership with a company, a university would make sure to get the most bang for its buck by restricting what the company could do with the invention and how it could profit from it.

To account for this sea change in corporate partnerships, Georgia Tech set up a French satellite campus, Georgia Tech Lorraine, 13 years ago; it even receives funding for research from the French government.

Besides Georgia Tech, other major institutions have either set up degree programs or campuses in foreign countries, or created joint-degree programs with foreign institutions. (See below, "Spanning the Globe.")

But, as a recent Wall Street Journal article (In Bid to Globalize, U.S. Colleges Offer Degrees in Asia, July 12, 2005) states, some Asian governments facing "a massive gap between demand for higher education and the supply of home-grown universities" are encouraging Western schools to "set up shop" there.

Victor Dzau, president and chief executive of Duke University Health System, adds that the new reality will be a mix of educational cultures. "In the future, there won't be a U.S. model or a Singapore model--it'll be a global model of education," he said in the article.

Clough has chaired an initiative of the National Academy of Engineering, called The Engineer of 2020, that attempts to gaze into the future and see what it holds for the profession. "This approach," he explained, "turns on its head the notion that engineering has relied on in the past of reacting to change after the fact and trying to play catch up. I believe many of the findings are applicable to the larger university environment, not just engineering."

Clough cited Thomas Friedman's new book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in describing how the dissolution of the Cold War-era world, in which the former Soviet Union and United States were archrivals, and the invention of the microchip allowed countries and higher ed institutions worldwide to compete with American IHEs for R&D dollars. "I would suggest our nation and our universities should be taking all of this very seriously because the risk in taking no action is very large," Clough said.

He offers this example of interdisciplinary collaboration at its best: Once, an engineer and cardiologist created microscopic sensors that were built into a stent (a wire mesh tube inserted permanently into an artery to allow blood to flow freely) or sent through the bloodstream to lodge into a lung to monitor a heart patient's condition. Now, instead of a CT scan, a doctor can simply wave a wand in front of a patient's chest to pick up readings that are radioed from the sensor, or the patient can simply give the doctors readings over the phone.

"This is the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that is at the heart of the innovation process, and it offers an exciting example of how education, research, and the commercial marketplace can join together to make something remarkable happen," Clough noted.

He suggested that institutions invest in a "talent infrastructure," made up of foreign faces eager to migrate to the United States for the freedom and opportunities it offers. "We need to replenish the pipeline of scientists and engineers who can discover the new ideas and invent the new technology that form the raw materials for innovation."

Currently, the education of engineers, for example, is too narrow and too focused. Students at Georgia Tech have said they learned more in co-op and study-abroad programs that the school promotes, and by conducting research during their undergraduate years, than in the classroom. A British university business officer in the session commented, "If you had changed the words from 'U.S.' to 'U.K.', it would be agreed upon there that universities' biggest challenge is keeping companies in the country to do research. There's no monopoly on talent around the world. Location is no longer an issue." At his school, a global emphasis is put on the engineering program by offering engineering students language classes in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

"We are used to thinking of ourselves in national terms through benchmark studies, rankings, and competitive processes. But, in the future, our context is going to be set by global circumstances," Clough said. He added that students from other countries are not coming to study here because they can't get visas on time. Rather, it's more that other schools in the world are competing with U.S. institutions, "so we need to be located in other parts of the world."