The green transition, made possible by the balance between academic and engineering research

Misiunea Apollo 13, lansată în aprilie 1970, s-a transformat imediat într-o luptă pentru supraviețuire.  Rezervoarele de oxigen au explodat, urmând faimoasa misiune de salvare. Lumea întreagă își ținea respirația, în timp ce de la o distanță de 200.000 de mile se căutau soluții pentru problemele tehnice. Inginerii și astronauții au lucrat împreună pentru a-și da seama cum să manevreze și să navigheze o navă spațială grav avariată, să găsească modalități inovatoare de conservare a energiei, oxigenului și apei și, în cele din urmă, să descopere cum să repornească un modul de comandă care nu fusese proiectat pentru a fi oprit în spațiu.

The European Union is firmly committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, according to the deadline set by the United Nations. Since 2015, most countries have aligned their national policies with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and started a gradual transition to green economies. Governments have policies that promote the emergence of a digital economy, including manufacturing, agriculture, health or smart finance sectors, concepts driven by digital technologies, which are the basis of Industry 4.0.

Research in the European Union: an integrated approach for the green and digital transition

Data from the UNESCO Science Report 2021 show a significant increase in human resources in research, an increase in research expenditure and a general trend towards more intensive scientific publications, with a particular focus on cross-cutting strategic technologies.
For the success of this double transition, EU governments must increase their commitment to research and development (R&D). The EU’s industrial policy, revised in 2021, supports the development of strategically important technologies for Europe’s industrial future. These technologies include robotics, microelectronics, high performance computing and cloud data infrastructure, blockchain, quantum technologies, photonics, industrial biotechnologies, biomedicine, nanotechnologies, pharmaceuticals and advanced materials.
In Romania, research is regarded as a field of national interest, being supported by both national and European funds. According to the data provided by the National Institute of Statistics, at the end of 2017, 44,801 employees were working in research and development, of which most (42.7%) worked in the higher education sector, (29.1%) in the governmental, (27.8%) were in the business sector and (0.4%) in the non-profit private sector. The scientific fields in which the largest number of employees worked in research and development are represented by engineering and technological sciences (50.1%) and natural and exact sciences (20.1%), and the fewest worked in the field social and economic sciences (3.5%).

Engineering Research

Research and development (R&D) are fundamental areas in both academia and industry, but there are significant differences in how they are approached in each environment.
The figures show, indisputably, the orientation of research towards engineering fields. At the same time, however, the definition of the researcher’s profile and its integration into research is closely linked to the skills acquired and his professional career in higher education institutions and national research institutes, less so in companies with research activity and hardly at all in companies that innovates in the field of digital technologies.
Unlike scientific research, which is oriented towards how the world works, engineering research is concerned with how things can work
for a given purpose. Such research could involve a lot of scientific study; however, engineers work to create design solutions to real-world problems at the rapid pace of today’s challenges.
In real life, the distinction between science and engineering is not always clear. Scientists often do some engineering work, and engineers frequently apply scientific principles, including the scientific method. But especially projects involving digital technologies often lie in the gray area between science and engineering. This is an advantage from the point of view of innovation with immediate effects in the market, considering that while both scientists and engineers can improve people’s lives and environmental conditions, an engineer’s products could have a faster impact than the research of a scientist.

Research in academia and industry

One of the main differences between R&D roles in academia and industry is the scope of the research. In academia, there is usually more freedom in the choice of research topic or methodology, as long as relevance, originality and contribution to the field can be justified. Researchers may focus on basic, exploratory, or interdisciplinary research that may not have immediate or obvious applications.
In industry, research is focused, applied, and aligned with company, customer, or consumer goals, needs, and expectations, and specific projects, products, or problems have clear goals, deadlines, and obvious deliverables. Often, decisions in the industry are motivated by financial considerations. Deadlines are rigid, requiring efficient time management in industrial research.
Another difference between R&D roles in academia and industry is the research culture. In academia, the researcher is part of an academic community that values ​​academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, peer review, and publication. In industry, the researcher is part of a business environment that values ​​innovation, efficiency, competitiveness and profitability.
But the biggest difference between these roles lies in the career prospects in research. In academia, a hierarchical and linear career path is typically followed that involves obtaining a PhD, securing a postdoctoral position, applying for a tenure-track teaching position, and advancing through the academic ranks. In industry, the career path is more diverse and flexible, often involving different roles, projects or companies.

Jack of all trades is NOT a master of none

Innovation represents an increasingly important source of competitive advantage for companies. According to the Harvard Business Review, over the past 40 years, organizations have increased their R&D spending by 800%. However, budgets alone do not always lead to real innovation. The types of researchers a company hires also play an important role.
The conventional approach recommends hiring researchers with deep expertise in a single field, such as artificial intelligence, neuroscience, aeronautics. However, recent research shows that employing multiple researchers with diverse areas of expertise is increasingly necessary to successfully innovate. These researchers are often viewed as having lower skills and competencies than their peers with more focused majors. But the reality in companies proves that the diversity of knowledge and interests of these researchers is an important function in innovation and not a sign of low competence.
At its core, innovation is the result of creatively combining different types of knowledge, and it is the broader exploration that leads to the greatest positive impact for companies. Many studies document the advantages and disadvantages of employing specialized or diverse researchers and the trade-off between depth and breadth of knowledge in particular. However, it is unrealistic to expect most organizations to maintain a broad set of employees in many knowledge areas in the hope of identifying powerful combinations. The alternative is collaboration between specialists and organizations in a multidisciplinary environment and open access to research results.

Our conclusion

Looking at the multiple facets of research, it is clear that recognizing engineering research on an equal footing with academic research is essential to promoting the green and digital transition. Valuing and supporting engineering innovation can make a significant contribution to addressing the contemporary challenges of climate change and digital transformation.
Green eDIH supports this balance, through its role in facilitating cooperation between academia and industry, thus promoting the development of sustainable and innovative technological solutions. Encouraging collaboration between engineering professionals and academic researchers can generate valuable synergies and accelerate progress towards a more sustainable and digital future. We therefore believe that adopting a balanced approach to research evaluation and support, which recognizes the importance of both engineering and academic research, is essential to fostering innovation and progress in contemporary society.
Moreover, Green eDIH creates a diverse collaborative environment and encourages the hiring of specialists with diverse professional portfolios, who are more likely to identify promising connections between fields. This is essential in the context in which both companies and the academic or governmental environment are aware of accelerating the process of identifying sustainable solutions for the green and digital transition.

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