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The changing research landscape

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun said on Monday afternoon at the Hynes Convention Center that the American system of higher education is the world’s best, but then he struck a note of caution.

“Our system is at a critical inflection point, driven by several disruptive forces, accelerated by technological innovations and intensified by a stagnant economy,” Aoun explained.

He addressed nearly 1000 students and researchers who gathered to hear his keynote speech at the National Sci­ence Foundation’s annual Engi­neering Research and Inno­va­tion Con­fer­ence.

The university is hosting the conference, which is focusing on trans­forming the engi­neering field through the for­ma­tion of robust part­ner­ships with acad­emia, industry and society.

In his opening remarks, Stephen Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, called this year’s theme timely and important.

“An individual working in a single discipline cannot find solutions to problems such as those in health, security and sustainability,” he added. “Rather, finding solutions to today’s problems requires interdisciplinary, often geographically diverse teams as well as partnerships with government, industry and other universities.”

Aoun said federal research and development funding for colleges and universities reached $427.2 billion last year, but noted that the numbers are actually declining if viewed as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Emerging nations such as China and India, Aoun said, are compounding the challenges facing higher education by investing heavily in university education and research and creating intense global competition for talent and research dollars.

But funding challenges is not the only hurdle that must be cleared. The very nature of the problems that today’s researchers are attempting to solve are more complicated and require more resources and creativity, Aoun explained, adding that these institutional obstacles are also opportunities.

Embracing new partnerships, he said, would go a long way toward addressing these complex issues and overcoming the financial and global pressures.

Aoun acknowledged several forms of partnerships, including those with domestic and foreign industry groups, as well as with national and international research institutions.

Of industrial partnerships, Aoun said, “As we enter into agreements with industry and as the relationship evolves, we need to reach an appropriate balance between collaboration and control.”

Within academia, he noted, we must promote an entrepreneurial approach that transcends the ivory tower, rethinking evaluation processes and strengthening institutional support for interdisciplinary partnerships.

Academic researchers benefit from longer timeframes, greater risk tolerance and a breadth and depth of expertise unparalleled by government and industry, he said.

“Universities have made incalculable contributions to solving national and global challenges in the past, and they are uniquely positioned to do so in the future,” Aoun said.