Many observers have dubbed the significant growth of Asia as the coming of the “Asian Century.” The expansion of Asian economies has resulted in the generation of many large conglomerates and companies, and it is expected that Asian corporations will continue to dramatically increase their representation in the Global Fortune 500 for the foreseeable future. With high capitalization, many of these companies realize that significant investments in R&D (internal and external) will be essential for long term growth and viability. For example, Samsung Electronics invested nearly $13 billion dollars in R&D in 2016, ranking it just behind Volkswagen AG in the global ranking for industrial research and development.
Asian companies increasingly invest in universities
This internal spending has been complemented with large external investments as well: Companies such as Samsung, LG, Huawei, Tencent, Alibaba have extensively engaged universities in their home countries for both short and long term research. As an example, Samsung’s deep engagement with Sungkyunkwan University is well known and according to a recent study, nearly 9% of publications from this school were co-authored by Samsung researchers. These universities have provided strong support to train talent that they hire, as well as investing significantly into research collaborations that have enabled them to deliver cutting edge innovation to their global customer base. The search for new markets and to harness the best talent has also pushed many of these companies to set up R&D operations in Europe and North America, and consequently they have sought to forge stronger relationships with leading academics in these regions.
Samsung invests upwards of $100 million dollars per year into universities, globally. While a significant portion is in Korea, there are a large number of interactions with universities in the United States and Europe. The signature Samsung collaboration program is the Global Research Outreach (GRO) Program. This call for proposals program, administered by Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), awards several million dollars in funding to the world’s leading research universities that propose innovative research ideas aligned with Samsung’s various research goals. In 2013, over 70 awards were made globally on topics ranging from next generation computing to data storage to aging. The majority of these went to North American and European universities. Huawei, also has a call for proposals program (Huawei Innovation Research Program) and has also made significant investments into universities outside of China. Recently, the company invested $1 million dollars into an Artificial Intelligence partnership with the University of California, Berkeley.
So, what will the coming of the “Asian Century” mean for the academic landscape 20 years from now? How relevant will universities in North America and Europe be? What will the talent on these various campuses look like? How will Asian companies work with Western universities and what will they look for in terms of finding partners? What will the Western government’s role be in ensuring that universities can compete effectively? In the following, I reflect on these questions.
Asian universities will become a strong competition to western universities
The global competition and collaboration between academics around the world, will be a trend to follow in the coming decades. Over the past two decades, Asian countries (China, South Korea, Taiwan, India and others) have invested significantly into their higher educational institutions, which has increased the relevance of these universities. Asian governments provide faculty members with stable funding and a large number of talented graduate students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. With excellent research productivity (i.e. publications in top journals) and focus on cutting edge areas (i.e. Artificial intelligence, personalized medicine, etc.), these institutions are well positioned, and North American and European universities continue to increase the level of cooperation with Asian Universities. A large part of these collaborations is aimed at solving grand challenges, such as climate change, pollution, feeding a growing world, job losses from AI, healthcare, etc.
Governments will engage in the global war for talent
While recent political changes in the US have decreased foreign enrollment, Asian students will also in the future go to North America and Europe to pursue their undergraduate and graduate education. They will thus make up a greater proportion of the student body of these universities, especially in STEM related fields.
Governments will ultimately realize the importance of this talent and pave the way to provide them with citizenship, while the home countries will attempt to repatriate the best and brightest. Faculty members will have a lot of options and will chose universities in countries that provide them with a stream of talent and stable funding.
Technology is changing with increasing speed and for companies to work on relevant problems, they will need to provide fresh knowledge and perspective to their employees. One way to accomplish this is through upgrading skills and gaining fresh perspective by spending time at universities. Many Asian conglomerates already have employees take “sabbaticals” as visiting scholars at top universities to work with faculty members on critical projects. These visits, which typically last for one year enable the scientists and engineers to further develop their skills, while working on projects that ultimately benefit the corporation. In the future this practice will take new forms and become even more common also at Western universities.
Western universities will market their strengths and uniqueness
US and European universities, sensing this competition, will focus on providing a uniqueness to companies that is not otherwise available in their home countries. They will invest even more time and effort into marketing their strengths. Universities will explore ways to work with companies by providing IP terms that allow companies to have exclusive access to IP generated from a collaboration. As the innovation cycle speeds up, universities and companies will also need to take shorter times to setting up collaborations, and support of pre-competitive consortia.
While in the past, large amounts of venture capital were a primary driver for the strong entrepreneurial environment in North American (especially Silicon Valley), the availability of capital is becoming more democratized globally. As a result, universities in North America and Europe, in order to compete, will need to collaborate extensively with those they never would have collaborated with before to define new white spaces. This will require fundamental restructuring of how universities go from more discipline-based to problem based research. University departments will also move away from traditional silo structures to more “challenge-based” structures, as the problems that need to be addressed will no longer fit into discreet subjects, like they have in the past. The end results will be of significant value to both foreign and domestic corporations.
While the recent trend has been Western governments providing either flat or decreased funding for science and engineering, in the future, universities will see increased levels of government funding. This change will come about as citizens and governments realize the importance of science & technology in the creation of new jobs and finding opportunities for those displaced due to new technologies (i.e. Artificial Intelligence).
Overall, I believe that the growth of Asian economies will be beneficial to North American and European university systems. They will provide talent and additional funding sources that will increase the innovation capabilities that already exist today.
Rajiv Dhawan received his Bachelor of Science degree from Simon Fraser University in suburban Vancouver. He then moved on to get his Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec followed by a postdoctoral appointment at Stanford University. Rajiv started his career at DuPont Central Research & Development as a Research Chemist and moved to the University Relations function and managed several programs, including the ~100 year old DuPont Young Professor program. Rajiv joined Samsung Semiconductor in 2016 and is currently Director of Strategic Planning and Business Development. In this role, he manages University Relations for Device Solutions America and key activities include collaboration management, technology scouting and Ph.D. recruiting.