Technology & Innovation

What Moonshots Need to Go From Research to Reality

April 12, 2017


April 12, 2017

Veronica Lara

Senior Editor, Americas

Veronica is a senior editor for The Economist Intelligence Unit's thought leadership division in New York. She specialises in market environment topics and trends that cut across industries, including the future of work, technological disruption, and economic competitiveness. In addition to these areas, she has led projects on advancements in manufacturing, historic energy demand trends, and socioeconomic topics such as organised labour, post-war impact investing and growth of cities.

Until July 2014 Veronica was the EIU's commerce and regulations analyst for 29 countries, mostly in the emerging markets. She has written for various EIU publications, on subjects such as financial inclusion, international trade, and policies aimed at attracting investment and promoting innovation.

Veronica holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in international relations from New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Before joining the EIU, she covered industries as diverse as defense, logistics and mining for a research advisory firm.


Today’s moonshots demand interdisciplinary collaboration

The moonshots of the previous century looked to push the boundaries of our collective imagination and knowledge—from actually landing on the moon to the invention of the internet. Over the past 20 years, however, the nature of the moonshot, or a large-scale project with a societal aim, has evolved as the needs of humanity have changed. For example:

• The UN forecasts that the world’s population will reach 9.7bn by 2050. This expanding population will overwhelm existing infrastructure, heightening the need for food security in developed and developing nations alike.

• Global warming and rising sea levels will reshape how and where we live; nations will look to researchers for answers to a host of related issues.

• Health concerns arising from aging populations and communicable diseases will continue to present new challenges worldwide.

There is a growing recognition that challenges such as these are too immense for any one organization or country to address effectively and at a sufficient scale on its own. According to Dr. Peter Adriaens, a researcher, entrepreneur and professor at the University of Michigan, “Today, you need to already demonstrate you’re already halfway to the moon to get the money to get to the moon. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, you had to demonstrate you could get off the earth. So it’s tough to get moonshot programs funded.”

Indeed, the challenges the world faces— and securing the funding that will help us find answers to these challenges—will require coordinated efforts involving multiple players from across sectors who together bridge funding gaps, harness the power of the best minds and achieve breakthrough innovations.

A desire for interdisciplinary engagement....

It’s good news, then, that a recent survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that the research community as a whole seeks to engage in more interdisciplinary projects. Asked about the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in conducting research, 61% of respondents with moonshot experience say such collaboration is critical to the success of research aimed at specific societal outcomes like climate change, global health and food security. Another 22% say interdisciplinary collaboration is important to those research efforts. Academic researchers most often feel the need for such collaboration, 67% saying it’s critical to research success.

Regarding who is best suited to lead research in areas aimed at specific societal outcomes, half of all respondents say projects led by a partnership of private, public and/or academic institutions will produce the best outcome.

 …but such partnerships are scarce

In practice, however, only one-third (34%) of moonshots identified in the survey were led by a cross-sector partnership, while 61% were led by either the public, private or academic sector. Still, moonshots were nearly twice as often led by such partnerships when compared with researchers’ largest projects overall (18%).

Government researchers most often report that their largest research project was led by a public-private partnership—likely the result of the government entity’s role as a funding source and convener of stakeholders. But even among government respondents, such partnerships led large-scale projects only 25% of the time.

Even less common than public-private partnerships leading large-scale research is for such partnerships to serve as the research’s primary funding source. The survey reveals that public-private partnerships funded just 13% of respondents’ largest projects, and 12% of actual moonshots. However, 26% of survey respondents cite public-private partnerships as the ideal funding source for moonshots, ranking second after government grants. 

Internal funding is the most common funding source for large-scale projects, cited by 47% of respondents, followed by government grants (38%). Once again, public-private partnerships play a slightly bigger role in the projects of government researchers than for those of other sectors, leading the funding in 20% of those cases, according to the survey. Meanwhile, 80% of private-sector researchers say their largest projects were primarily funded in-house. Government grants were the primary funding source for the largest research projects in academia (55%) and government (47%), but only 10% of those in the private sector.

Working to forge partnerships

Given the importance of collaboration in solving today’s challenges, several organizations are working to establish more partnerships and consortiums that reach across the public, private and academic sectors to increase the likelihood of moonshot success. According to Dr. Caralynn Nowinski Collens, CEO of UI LABS, which convenes and manages innovation platforms in manufacturing and infrastructure, “The current market conditions—declining R&D spending in the federal government and corporate America, the increase in the pace of digital technology obsolescence and the nature of business models needed to implement a solution—are creating a set of market conditions that necessitate reinventing R&D.”

The ways that public-private partnerships can fill this gap are also changing. UI LABS currently manages two innovation platforms: the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, which focuses on integrating the latest technologies into all facets of manufacturing, and City Digital, which focuses on applying data-driven solutions to address issues of urban infrastructure. Dr. Nowinski Collens notes, “It’s not about standing up an entire institution around these problems but sourcing the right players from the right places. Consortiums have been a place where people come together to talk about solutions, and applied research institutes develop those solutions.”

A greater reliance on these partnerships will change the dynamics of moonshots, with ownership—and outcomes—shared across sectors. “One of the benefits of cross-sector collaboration is that when you bring people from different disciplines together over a common goal, it’s often the students—our future workforce—that come to embody this intersection of knowledge,” says Dr. Sohi Rastegar, head of the Office of Emerging Frontiers and Multidisciplinary Activities at the National Science Foundation. “The new generation of researchers gets exposure to various disciplines, and that’s how they discover transformative outcomes.”

Dr. Nowinski Collens states, “More and more people recognize that collaboration is a means to tackle these grand challenges. Industry is willing to provide funding for moonshots and pool resources, assuming that they will see some outcomes.” Ensuring that corporate, academic and government partners have a secure platform to work together and share the fruits of their research going forward will be critical to meet the most significant societal challenges in the coming years.

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