The following is an excerpt.
Chronicle. CASA´s director Magnus Langseths raises some crucial questions in The Norwegian Business Daily.
«Research can save industry time and a substantial amount of money. But how do we get companies that have limited time and limited know-how about research to exploit world-class science?»
Since 2005, the Research Council of Norway´s Programme for Centres for Research-based Innovation (SFI) has linked over 500 partners from industry, research and the public sector in 38 centres.
From my vantage point in SFI CASA at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), running such a centre can be compared to fine-tuning one´s technique in the long jump, while measuring how high you jump. International research excellence is characterized by creating innovative technology, more commercialization, more spin-offs and greater value.
Way out in front and leaving the rest of the field behind
How can we balance our cutting-edge research with the need to link it to the industry that wants results tomorrow?
One challenge is that ground-breaking research takes time. A doctorate takes 3-4 years. Some research fields can provide innovations with practical use in a few years. Others need 10 years or more. An SFI lasts for 8 years.
Our research group has become a world leader in its field, but this has been a 30-year process. We develop advanced models that simulate the behaviour of materials and structures exposed to extreme loads such as impacts, crashes, explosions and shelling. We are way ahead of the industry – but at the same time we are lagging behind: 5 of our 14 partners are among the world´s leading car manufacturers. They want results tomorrow from something we know can take years.
On the brink in the Technological Valley of Death
CASA is our second SFI, and we are halfway through the project period. I am in my 12th year standing on the edge of what is often called the «Technological Valley of Death». This is an image derived from the Technology Readiness Levels scale (TRL), developed by NASA. It has 9 steps that describe how a technology matures from basic research to commercialization.
While academic bodies invest in research and stay at TRL 1 to 4, the industry puts its money into production and that means steps 7 to 9. The challenge is in the gap in between.
There, down on the valley floor, good business ideas wither away. Opportunities are lost.
Research know-how does not belong to those who do the work. It belongs to those who need it.
A gap in the SFI scheme
I see the same gap in the SFI scheme. In my view, the contractual statutes are perfectly clear: Research is done in the SFIs. Innovation is taken care of by the partners based on the knowledge the researchers develop. Even so, there are many interpretations, and we see numerous ways to organize SFI centres. There are major differences between how Norwegian and international industry look at research as the basis for innovation. Compared with Norwegians, international partners are more active, hungrier for results and much more concerned about getting maximum returns on their investments.
When Damvad Analytics evaluated the business impact of the SFI scheme in 2017, they failed to find any convincing results in terms of innovation, commercialization or internationalization. They found that few Norwegian companies are engaged in research. Many of them use experience to guide innovation, not research.
We know that Norwegian industry makes much less investment in research compared to other countries. Consequently, we face the challenge of getting the industry to use research.
Constant demand for innovation
At the same time, the demand for innovation comes from all sides: from the authorities, politicians, policymakers, the Research Council, university management and industry. Our response has been to map the possible effects of our research over the next 10-30 years. Our conclusion is that our models can save the industry billions of dollars – providing it is used.
Damvad stated that the main challenge is to find the balance between developing the best research and utilizing it. The responsibility goes both ways. The industry does not know enough about research; scientists know even less about the industry.
The SFI concept is excellent, and society is injecting many billions of kroner into it. Therefore, we must find out how we can maximize our returns from it. How can we sort out misinterpretations and misunderstandings? What requirements should be demanded from researchers, and what must we demand from industry? We must find out how to bridge the valley of death.
Research belongs to those who need it
Damvad states that partners must be subject to stricter selection. Either they must document that they can do research themselves, or show how they have the ability to do so within 8 years. The roles need to be clarified. I want more exchanges of personnel between the university and industry, and the latter must make more active use of our master´s students.
The deadline on 25 September is the 4th and final round for SFI applications. It will be exciting to see how research and industry link up here. There must be a solution. Research know-how does not belong to those who do the work. It belongs to those who need it.