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A Radical Rethink of R&D


It's a new world of collaboration across companies and nations. IBM is launching a major new experiment, while Microsoft keeps dreaming big. The question is whether anyone can come up with the breakthroughs to create millions of new jobs

Once upon a time, the U.S. was the world's unrivaled innovation leader. America had the best universities, the strongest corporate research, and a government that invested aggressively in things like space exploration and advanced communications. The result was a steady stream of world-changing innovations, from the transistor at Bell Labs to the Internet at the Defense Dept.

The country's leadership is no longer unrivaled. While the U.S. still tops most global rankings for research investment and productivity, aggressive countries from Asia and Europe are closing the gap. This shift creates both a challenge to the U.S. and an opportunity for a new kind of innovation. The key is recognizing that the future of research will transcend national boundaries and corporate walls.

IBM has launched a major initiative to capitalize on the changes. It's forming tieups with governments, universities, and companies globally to harness new ideas and pursue promising avenues of research.

The role for government is evolving too. Countries such as the U.S. must foster innovation at home, even as their multinationals explore opportunities abroad like never before. The Obama Administration has promised to make science and technology top priorities, but the economic meltdown forced it to focus on the crises du jour. Thomas Kalil, deputy director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy, says the tens of billions in stimulus money allocated for science research, clean energy, and other projects is only a "down payment."

Research breakthroughs are especially important at a time of turmoil. They can lay the foundation for the industries and jobs of the future. But they won't happen without creativity from companies and government.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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