The Future of Research: Powershifts and Implications

The global research and development (R&D) ecosystem is changing rapidly and dramatically. An arena once dominated, fueled, and funded by U.S. federal government organizations like the National Science Foundation, NIH, NASA, Office of Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now being driven — and bankrolled — by investors from industry, philanthropy, business, peer-to-peer groups, academia, and the private sector.

To quantify this in numbers: it’s estimated that over 75% of R&D funding in the U.S. comes from sources outside the federal government. When you expand that scope globally, the business sector emerges as the top player, accounting for 83% of R&D growth from 2010 to 2019. Global investment in R&D is also skyrocketing. In a single year, annual investment worldwide tripled, jumping from $726M in 2019 to more than $2.4T in 2020. Over the next five years, estimates project growth globally will be between 3%-5% CAGR. 

In addition to these seismic financial shifts, the R&D landscape is being continually disrupted by developments in geopolitics, social activism, security, trust, transparency, education, technology, public/private interactions, competitive positioning, and intellectual property. These and other escalating forces are creating new funding models, new methods of collaboration, and new ways of conceptualizing research and measuring its impact. In The Third Wave (1980), Karen Toffler Charitable Trust co-founder Alvin Toffler uses the term “powershift” to describe the change in global power structures being driven by technological adoption and advancement. As technology continues to evolve, Toffler asserts, knowledge will become an increasingly significant source of power in society, exponentially impacting the ways we work and live. We see this idea reflected in what’s currently unfolding across the research ecosystem — and with both worrisome and promising implications for its future.

Discussing the Future of Research

On October 19, 2022, the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust (KTCT) hosted a dinner with leaders from both the public and private sectors to discuss the ever-evolving landscape of global R&D and the forces shaping its future. This dinner was part of Exeloop, KTCT events where members of our community come together to connect and share ideas to fuel research progress.

Our objective was to foster a strategic, forward-looking, progress-driving dialogue between these diverse leaders on how research is changing and what the implications — and possibilities — may be for today’s organizations and the future they are striving to create. What follows is a summary of our discussion that evening.  

To facilitate the conversation, we posed several questions to our attendees, including:

  • What powershifts do you see happening in the research ecosystem?
  • What are the implications of those shifts for today’s organizations, structures, and processes?
  • How will we conceptualize research in the future and measure its impact?
  • What do you see as threats to traditional research processes and organizations?

Over the course of the evening, several themes emerged.

R&D in the U.S. is moving too slowly

While the global R&D ecosystem continues to evolve at an accelerated pace, the situation in the U.S. is noticeably different. Participants commented that research institutions in our country have failed to explore, develop, and introduce new, more innovative ways to conduct research. 

In addition to perpetuating now-antiquated methods, traditional research cultivates a counterproductive power dynamic, especially within universities. Doctoral research is still considered an apprenticeship, which creates what one attendee described as “rigorous servitude.” There’s continual pressure, for example, for investigators to author and publish journal articles about their research, yet they do not receive any funding to do so. This lack of support and empowerment can be toxic to the kind of curiosity, exploration, and discovery required to generate new, more innovative models and areas of research. It can also cause universities to protect their funding pipelines by discouraging or limiting certain kinds of research, typically early-stage or cutting-edge ideas. This increases the chance of publishing and minimizes risk, but often creates barriers for promising ideas with untapped — and untested — potential. 

Efforts to drive progress are systematically blocked

The speed at which change can be accomplished is complicated by the rigid nature of the existing infrastructure. The majority of research funding is built around the traditional model that traditional research powerhouses such as NIH uses, so even when NIH is not providing financial support, its historical priorities, processes, and focuses inherently hinder progress. 

Researchers’ frustration is furthered by the fact that any funding for new and improved infrastructure is most likely to come from the very organization that is blocking progress: NIH. In an effort to combat this, some more resilient investigators are working hard to stand up The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (APRA-H), an independent entity within the NIH, and establish the use of more open-ended requests for applications (RFAs) for health. But the incentive to drive change remains low, and it’s challenging for investigators to stay motivated.

Young science researchers are quickly abandoning academia

Most young investigators entering graduate programs know they may not be able to remain in academia long-term due to a mix of professional, financial, and personal stressors.

Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers describe the university system as “exploitative.” They grapple with increased teaching demands, pressure to win grants, insufficient compensation, decreasing funding options, and looming pension cuts for tenured faculty. They also spend long hours at the lab bench to generate results that help advance their professors’ careers but not their own. Nature’s 2021 salary and satisfaction survey reflects this discontent. Of the more than 1,200 mid-career researchers surveyed, 41% reported that organizational politics or bureaucracy frequently or always frustrate their efforts to do a good job. An additional 37% expressed dissatisfaction with their current position.

Witnessing this systemic dysfunction, young researchers easily (and reasonably) abandon academia in favor of the six-figure salaries, generous benefits, and career opportunities offered by a booming private sector with a voracious and growing appetite for young talent.  

Fortunately, this urgent issue isn’t being completely ignored. In his November 2022 article in Stat, Jonathan Wosen reports that the NIH will soon launch a working group focused on better understanding the postdoc shortage. The hope is that they can shed some light on what’s driving it, whether there have been measurable impacts on research productivity, and what NIH can do to better support postdocs. Exeloop attendees said they want to see more efforts like the NIH’s to help address this critical situation.

Misinformation is creating a growing mistrust of science

The majority of the population does not realize that conducting scientific research is a highly decentralized process. It’s often messy, slow, and non-sequential. It involves testing and retesting hypotheses to determine what does and doesn’t work. This general misunderstanding of science isn’t necessarily damaging in and of itself. But when combined with the misinformation being spread by news pundits, politicians, business leaders, and other public figures claiming to be speaking on behalf of science, it creates mistrust.

Exeloop participants used the global pandemic as a powerful example of the negative and far-reaching impact of “scientific” misinformation.

Leaders throughout the world tried to use science to guide decision- and policy-making, but we simply did not yet have the science to do so. As a result, their assertions of supposedly scientific facts — many of which hadn’t been tested or substantiated — created mass confusion and distrust among the public. Some of it was true, some of it wasn’t. So, who and what could people trust? 

The general population’s confusion and distrust was amplified by a hyperconnected, 24/7 news cycle, and then exacerbated further by the misinformation spread by politicians, business leaders, news pundits, and other public figures — all of whom claimed to be speaking on behalf of science.

History also contributes to a distrust of science.

Exeloop participants also brought up the role that history plays in the public’s distrust of science. For example, during the pandemic, a majority of Black communities were reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19. To mitigate this issue, policymakers and health officials partnered with local leaders, such as clergy and local leaders, to encourage their community members to receive the vaccine. But this didn’t work … because historical context was not considered. Many members of the black community still remember the infamous Tuskegee experiments that took place between 1932 and 1972. In this case, distrust of science is anchored in a well-documented historical injustice that was committed in the name of science. Understanding history is the first step, understanding how specific communities feel about that history is critical to building trust.

We need to help more people understand that science is an ongoing process of discovery.

The rigor of the scientific method is how we challenge assumptions, biases, and hypotheses. It is, by nature, a perpetual cycle of learning, unlearning, and relearning. To be deemed useful, a researcher’s results must be testable, reproducible, and falsifiable. Yet even the most persuasive scientific findings should be held as incomplete and tentative — always subject to further investigation, revision, and dismissal in the light of new scientifically tested discoveries. 

According to our attendees, we need to help people outside of the R&D community better understand that scientific findings are simply that: findings. They represent what we know today, to the best of our capabilities. Tomorrow, we may learn something new, and this constant quest for knowledge is at the heart of science.

Hope for the future of research is alive and well

At the close of our evening together, we asked participants what made them feel hopeful for the future of research. 

Many expressed their optimism about the next generation of researchers, who they describe as smart, well-traveled, empathetic, and increasingly open to creating better futures for everyone. Attendees are also encouraged by humanity’s ability and eagerness to innovate for the greater good. More and more people are working at both the global and local levels to develop solutions to address issues impacting us worldwide. COVID-19, one participant shared, demonstrates how researchers and scientists can come together as a global community to solve problems that affect humanity. 

There’s also a growing interest in transformation research and the possibilities it holds. We’re already seeing new types of scientific collaborations emerge, all of which will inevitably lead to new science and solutions to humanity’s toughest challenges.

Participants also said that attending events like Exeloop inspire hope. It’s invaluable and essential to bring together people at a leadership and policy level to explore and discuss key issues. Many commented that it would be equally valuable to encourage similar exploration and brainstorming sessions for more narrow groups of researchers who are all focused on solving a specific issue.

At the evening’s end, all agree that — though there are definitive concerns about the future of research — there is also cause for hope, and it comes in the form of people from diverse communities coming together to discuss, explore, and address humanity’s challenges in the name of shared 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 to fuel progress that benefits the whole of humanity.