The Future of Research: Coalitions for Future Impact

The global research and development (R&D) ecosystem is estimated to grow to $1.25T by 2025. Fueled by investments from across the public and private sectors, this rapidly changing arena is becoming increasingly and incredibly diverse. What was once primarily a government-fueled engine of innovation has expanded to encompass businesses, nonprofits, foundation entities, and more. Likewise, advancements in technology, evolving societal needs, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge continue to converge to forge an exciting landscape of possibilities.

The future of research and innovation holds immense potential to shape our world in profound ways. To achieve that promise, research, and innovation must rely on interdisciplinary collaboration. By combining their unique perspectives and specialized expertise, scientists, researchers, engineers, policymakers, non-profits, commercial businesses, and investors can drive new breakthroughs and develop holistic solutions to the complex challenges we face.

Discussing the Future of Research 

On September 6, 2023, the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust (KTCT) hosted a dinner with leaders from both the public and private sectors. Our objective was to foster a strategic, forward-looking discussion about how research is changing and what that means for today’s organizations and the future they are trying to create. This dinner was part of Exeloop, KTCT events where members of our community come together to connect and share ideas to fuel research progress. What follows is a summary of our discussion that evening.  

To facilitate the conversation, we posed an overarching question to our attendees: How will research and innovation shape and adapt to the rapidly evolving technological landscape and its impact on society?

Over the course of the evening, several themes emerged.

Part 1: Exploring the Challenges in Research and Innovation

The pace of R&D in the U.S. is slowing 

Once known for its innovative spirit, R&D in the U.S. is slowing, bogged down by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and a reluctance to let go of traditional R&D approaches. As a result, a system that was dynamic and groundbreaking is being dramatically outpaced by global competitors. If not addressed, this inertia will have long-term consequences for the country’s technological and economic leadership.

While tradition can be a source of stability and continuity, it can also be a hindrance to progress. Embracing new technologies, data-driven approaches, and interdisciplinary collaboration is essential if the U.S. wants to overcome the inertia of these traditional research practices.

The next generation of innovators requires more support

The future of research and innovation requires a pipeline of talent — inventive scientists and researchers who are invigorated by the unique challenges and possibilities inherent to R&D. Yet these up-and-coming innovators are finding themselves navigating a system that does not provide adequate support, nor opportunities to make an income that supports having a family, buying a home, or saving for the future. As a result, many young investigators struggle to recognize a path to a professional career in research. This lack of support not only impacts their individual growth and potential but also hinders the overall progress of the field.

Misinformation and mistrust are increasingly problematic

In an age of information overload, misinformation and mistrust have become rampant. People turn to sources of varying degrees of reliability to get their information. The scientific community is not immune to this trend, and navigating the sea of contradictory information is challenging.

Building trust in institutions, their transparency, and their commitment to scientific integrity are crucial steps in preserving the integrity of research, fostering innovation, and maintaining public support for R&D. Sharing accurate and exciting scientific progress—and communicating their value and potential benefits to society—will help foster public trust and support. 

The globalized knowledge flow poses novel challenges

The interconnectedness of the world has led to a globalized knowledge flow. Information and discoveries can now come from anywhere, which has both positive and negative implications. While it opens doors to new ideas and collaboration, it also presents challenges related to intellectual property, ethical considerations, and competition.

Distinguishing between innovation and invention is an ongoing debate

We continue to debate the ways that innovation and invention diverge and converge in the world of R&D. Is it enough to create something new, or does true innovation require the successful implementation and market adoption of these inventions? The concept of “venture engineering” — which unites funding with expertise across the tech, manufacturing, and market development fields to produce and commercialize the next generation of engineered products — highlights the importance of taking an invention and turning it into a marketable innovation.

Part 2: Exploring the Factors Influencing Research and Innovation

Government has been a driving force behind major discoveries

Government support for big basic science projects has historically been a driving force behind major discoveries. The breakthroughs we’ve achieved through government-funded R&D demonstrate the value of having a centralized entity providing funding for basic science research. For example, after 100 years of cancer research, we’re finally at a place where most diagnoses are not a death sentence. Through thirty years of researching HIV, patients can now live long lives with the virus. And thanks to the Human Genome Project, we have now identified, mapped, and sequenced every gene in the human genome.

The private sector has a distinct culture and set of incentives

Private companies, which are not subject to the same constraints and regulations as the public sector, often excel in terms of efficiency and speed, leading to faster advancements. Incorporating a substantial private sector presence in research and innovation can bring agility and diverse perspectives to R&D.

Industry and research have a symbiotic relationship

Although research lays the foundation for innovation, we rely on industry to transform those innovations into products that benefit society. The pharmaceutical industry can produce life-saving therapies and treatments discovered in the lab on a commercial scale. ChatGPT can bring cutting-edge AI research to everyday people. These examples highlight the symbiotic relationship between research and industry.

There are few incentives to collaborate

Promoting collaboration in academia is essential for tackling complex challenges. However, the current incentive structure does not always favor collaboration, and researchers are often encouraged to focus on individual achievements. As a result, the researcher may prioritize short-term gains over long-term innovation, which hinders progress. Addressing this disconnect is crucial to promoting a culture of innovation.

Culture plays a significant role in shaping R&D practices.

A culture of sustained innovation is crucial for fostering progress, but it is not always evident in every institution. Creating environments that encourage innovation is a complex challenge, especially in light of the other factors influencing research and innovation. 

Effective research and innovation require a robust infrastructure

Researchers often need access to specialized equipment, data, and resources to do their work effectively. Establishing a shared infrastructure that supports the entire research community is pivotal for progress.

Research funding cycles can disrupt long-term projects.

Economic recessions often lead to funding pullbacks, impacting the stability of research initiatives. Finding ways to mitigate these cyclical disruptions is essential for maintaining progress.

Short-term funding and long-term funding often work against each other

The dominance of short-term research funding can hinder the pursuit of long-term projects that may yield transformative results. Balancing the need for immediate results with the long-term vision of innovation is an ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed. 

The risk perception for researchers varies between academia and the industry

In academia, there is often a lack of tolerance for experiments that may not yield immediate results. This disparity in risk perception can lead to talented individuals leaving academia for the more stable environment of the R&D industry. 

The publishing landscape is changing rapidly

The landscape of research publication is evolving rapidly, with a growing gap between the time of research completion and its accessibility to the public. Strategies to expedite basic research publication while maintaining quality and credibility are necessary for keeping pace with innovation.

Part 3: Exploring the Role of Universities in Research and Innovation

Universities are the training grounds for young researchers

Universities serve as the primary training grounds for the next generation of researchers and innovators. However, they have historically focused on conducting academic research rather than preparing students for the practical aspects of engineering, drug development, and commercialization. This is particularly apparent when it comes to commercialization. Graduates well-versed in research methodologies lack the knowledge required to bring innovative solutions to the market. 

It’s crucial for universities to recognize the importance of integrating this parallel training track into their programs. Bridging this knowledge gap would enable researchers to bring other skills and experience to their teams when needed, such as investors and businesses. The caution is to ensure we do not sacrifice advanced science.

Collaboration is essential for tackling complex challenges

Academic institutions, researchers, and funding agencies should prioritize, reward, and incentivize collaboration to address complex, interdisciplinary challenges. However, the current incentive structure does not always favor collaboration. Researchers are often encouraged to focus on individual achievements, so each lab becomes, in essence, its own company. Although certain entities, like the National Institute on Aging (NIA), are trying to increase collaboration, adopting a more collaborative model would help drive the pace of progress.

Part 4: Exploring Opportunities to Promote Collaboration and Innovation

Collaborative funding models accelerate our collective progress

Collaborative funding models are essential for tackling complex problems that require resources beyond what a single entity can provide. Encouraging organizations to pool their resources can drive more significant advancements in research and innovation.

Establishing valuation metrics for collaboration would promote adoption

Although measuring the value of collaboration can be challenging, establishing metrics would demonstrate its true worth when it comes to driving R&D progress, success, and results. 

One valuation metric would be whether collaborations lead to the creation of new companies or ventures. This approach, reminiscent of the MIT culture, emphasizes the tangible impact of collaboration. Thoughtfully exploring and establishing these metrics would encourage the R&D field to adopt more collaborative structures, systems, and methodologies.

Major funders play a pivotal role in facilitating cross-collaboration

The collaboration of multiple stakeholders across the R&D ecosystem often depends on a core funding entity that can provide the foundational resources required for success. So major funders will play a pivotal role in developing the infrastructure necessary for collaboration-driven research and innovation.

We need to balance the need for immediate return with long-term research

Striking a balance between short-term results and long-term innovation is crucial to R&D’s collective progress. Economic and political pressures often lead to demands for immediate returns on investments. However, research inherently involves risks and uncertainties, and acknowledging the need for patience in pursuit of long-term gains is essential.

Additionally, the context in which research takes place is constantly evolving. Funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are increasingly pressured to demonstrate short-term returns on their investments. The four-year government election cycles can also lead to shifting policies that impact long-term research projects. 

Part 5: Exploring the Future of Research and Innovation

Science heroes can keep the next generation motivated and inspired

Celebrating the individuals who have made significant contributions to science can encourage young people to pursue careers in R&D. Likewise, these science heroes and their achievements have the power to inspire researchers and innovators who are now entering the field or seeking a professional path forward in R&D. 

Addressing Misinformation

Misinformation poses a challenge to public health and influences the image of research and innovation in society. It is crucial to counteract misinformation and promote accurate and exciting scientific progress.

Similarly, public trust in research is essential for the field to thrive. Communicating the value of scientific advancements and their potential benefits to society is crucial for fostering trust and support. Addressing these broader contexts will help bring the work of scientists to the broader public more effectively, leading to breakthroughs that can shape the future of humanity.

Philanthropy and prestige are important to young scientists

The immense wealth of philanthropic foundations and individuals can significantly impact the direction of research and the development of critical infrastructure. For young scientists, access to funding and resources that align with their research aspirations is important.

Institutional prestige is also a key concern. In addition to financial stability and support, prestigious institutions have a reputation for excellence within the R&D ecosystem. This lends credibility to the work of young scientists and the research they want to pursue. Because they provide this level of support, these institutions often attract top talent and can shape the future of the field.

Training the next generation of scientists is critical

Equipping the next generation of scientists with the skills to conduct groundbreaking research, particularly in fields like embryonic stem cell lab techniques, will ensure that the torch of innovation is passed on. We need to continue to invest in training in these critical and emerging areas to secure the future of research and innovation.

The future of research and innovation holds promise despite its challenges

Young scientists entering the field are exceptionally talented and eager to make a difference. Providing them with the right support and opportunities can drive future breakthroughs. Likewise, little doses of optimism go a long way, so it’s important for the R&D community to provide them with guidance, encouragement, and support. 

Genomic research has seen remarkable advances

Advances in genomic research have led to transformative insights into genetics and personalized medicine. Such advancements highlight the potential for innovation and its broad-reaching impact.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a valuable tool for researchers

AI-driven solutions—such as the work of KCTC Toffler Scholar Dr. Vijay Kolachalama—are accelerating progress in various fields, from healthcare to natural language processing. As new AI tools and technologies continue to emerge, it’s increasingly clear that AI will continue to play a pivotal role in advancing science.

Hope for therapeutic breakthroughs is growing

Innovation in biomarker research, exemplified by amyloid studies, offers hope for groundbreaking therapeutic breakthroughs. Such advancements have the potential to revolutionize healthcare and improve the quality of life for many.

The pace of global scientific progress is accelerating

Researchers, institutions, and funding agencies must adapt to the rapid pace of scientific progress without compromising the quality and integrity of research. Incentives are key to accelerating progress, but we must reexamine the way they are structured to ensure they are positively contributing to a researcher’s work. Rather than focusing on the number of papers published, for example, we could focus on knowledge gained. Incentives could also be centered on achieving breakthroughs or solving problems. 

Neurodegeneration is an increasing societal challenge

Caring for society’s vulnerable members, especially as the population ages, underscores the societal responsibility of research and innovation. We know that neurodegeneration is an ever-increasing societal challenge, which makes research in this area a priority. Conducting focused work in this area, as precedence has proven, can create momentum toward developing effective therapies, treatments and, the ultimate goal, cures for neurodegenerative diseases and disorders.

Exploring the Evening’s Key Takeaways

The future of research and innovation holds great promise, with young scientists, advances in genomics, AI, and therapeutic breakthroughs driving progress. Yet as we navigate this future, we face a complex landscape filled with challenges and opportunities. The critical balance between tradition and modernization, the engagement of young scientists, and the battle against misinformation and mistrust are among the hurdles that demand our attention.

Collaboration between academia, industry, and government — as well as private sector engagement, infrastructure development, and cultural change — will shape the path forward. Collaborative funding models can also help drive success, fueling cross-sector and cross-industry partnerships that would enable us to develop new metrics for valuation and mitigate the disconnect between divergent incentives. 

The role of universities as training grounds for researchers must evolve to include commercialization training while respecting varied norms and cultures in sharing research results. We must acknowledge and manage the changing context of research, the need for patience in long-term projects, the challenge of addressing misinformation, and the need to build public trust in the R&D ecosystem. 

Recognizing the acceleration of scientific progress and the societal role in caring for its members can guide us toward a future where research and innovation continue to thrive. With the right strategies and support, we can look forward to a future of optimism, innovation, and scientific progress.

About Exeloop

Exeloop℠ is a center point for a network of relationships between the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust (KTCT), past and present Toffler Scholars, University partners, and investors. These are secure, collaborative, cross-connection events designed to advance the progress of investigators and research supporters from diversified backgrounds. These virtual and live networking events are curated to help accelerate scientific innovation and fuel progress that benefits the whole of humanity.

About The Karen Toffler Charitable Trust

The Karen Toffler Charitable Trust (KTCT) is a 501c-3 nonprofit organization that supports often underfunded, early-stage medical research. Authors Alvin and Heidi Toffler, best known for their 1970 bestseller Future Shock, established KTCT to honor their daughter, Karen, who passed prematurely at the age of 46 from complications from Guillain-Barré syndrome. Today, KTCT continues to honor their legacy of tenacious curiosity and unfailing hope through our support of early-career research, creative or ambitious approaches to research, and collaborations across disciplines and endeavors.